Thursday, September 13, 2018

Sweet Charity - Adorable Characters / Fosse Edge



Sweet Charity is not a great musical.  But it is an entertaining musical.  The story concerns Charity Hope Valentine, a dance hall hostess (as opposed to being the prostitute of the source material) in 1966 Manhattan, and her search for love in the big, mean city.  Book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields.

There are a couple of major problems.  First, is the ending – which I won’t reveal.  It’s logical, it makes perfect dramatic sense, in its time it was completely unexpected while still feeling inevitable… and I hate it.  Second, about half the songs are great; the other half are merely competent.  The merely competent songs are the ones where the only reason to have them in the show is, “We need a song here…  I think.”  If They Could See Me Now is a perfect expression of Charity’s joy at having an opulent night out with a movie star.  But when Charity actually gets a marriage proposal, which should be an even bigger deal for her, I’m a Brass Band only packs about half the punch of If They Could See Me Now.  And it's a problem with the material, not the execution.

That being the case, should you see Marriott Theatre’s production of Sweet Charity?  Hell, yes.  It’s a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.


Alex Sanchez’s direction and choreography are absolutely spot-on brilliant.  As with any Bob Fosse musical, the potential problem for a director lies in not being Bob Fosse.  There’s a dictation of style that you must acknowledge, without being a copycat.  Sanchez does a wonderful job with the choreography, and is an expert at staging the comedy.  Simon’s book is one where the comedy dies if you’re polite about it.  You have to go all out.  Sanchez does that, and it works beautifully.



As Charity, Anne Horak’s acting, singing and dancing are all top-notch.  She completely overcomes the issue that physically, she’s wrong for the part.  I didn’t believe that a gorgeous blonde in 1966 New York would be having her problems.  The role works best with a gamin.  But Horak triumphs.  By the end of the first act, you’re in love with her.  She is completely moving and engaging.

It’s a shame that Alex Goodrich as the neurotic Oscar Lindquist doesn’t appear until Act I is almost over, because he takes the comedy and rachets it up to a whole other level.  When I direct comedy, the biggest problem is getting actors to go as big as they need to be.  They think it’s overacting; but it isn’t supposed to be real – it needs to appear real to the people in the back row.  Goodrich is an expert at going extraordinarily big, getting huge laughs and keeping it believable.

So – the physical casting issue I had with Anne Horak (but she won me over)?  Same issue but different results with as Kenny Ingram as Daddy Brubeck, singing The Rhythm of Life.  Phenomenally talented man; wrong for the part.  His voice is too high.  (A) The pitch of the voice affected the clarity of the words, which come fast and furious.  (B) The role requires a voice that can win over a crowd.  Ingram has a great voice, but it’s a violin, not a trumpet.


Natonia Monét and Dani Spieler are fun as Charity’s pals Helene and Nickie; Adam Jacobs is charming as the suave but rather hapless movie star Vittorio and Alexandra Polkovic is great as his insecure bombshell girlfriend.

One of the truisms for ensemble members is this: give it your all, because somebody’s going to looking at you at all times.  And this ensemble gives it their all.  However, some people have more to give.  Kyra Sorce is very funny as a YMCA receptionist, but I started paying attention much earlier: in Hey, Big Spender, Sorce is one of the dance hall girls.  While beckoning to the off-stage men in the song, Sorce has this look of, “I really want to dance with you but I might have a knife and it’d be fun to use it but don’t think about that – let’s dance!”  It’s this insane look.  And later, she has a brief sideways-lower-lip expression that I first saw in Frankenhooker (also about a troubled Manhattan girl with promiscuity issues.)  Her verbal timing in the YMCA scene is pitch-perfect.  In short, this girl needs to be cast in a major musical-comedy role.  Soon.  (She's the one in the middle; short black hair.)


 Patti Garwood and her orchestra do a fantastic job with the music.  Mieka van der Ploeg’s costumes are period perfect.

To reiterate – Sweet Charity is not the greatest musical of all time.  But this is an amazing production where every aspect is first rate.  Spend the money.  Go see it.

Sweet Charity runs at the Marriott Theatre, Ten Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, IL  60069.  For tickets and information: 


Thursday, February 15, 2018

"Cabaret" Bowles You Over a Cliff


(NOTE: Blogger.com is not letting me upload publicity photos right now.  I'll try again later.)

At a theatre where I worked, there was a flat with graffiti on the back.  It said, “Life is a cabaret – long, boring and full of Nazis.”  Katie Spelman’s production at the Paramount contradicts two of those items.

At the end of Willkommen, the opening number of Cabaret, you pretty much sit there slack-jawed and ready to go home, thinking, “Okay, I got my money’s worth.”  It wasn’t just the best Willkommen I’ve ever seen, it’s one of the best stagings of an opening number I’ve ever seen; and this is the fifth or sixth Cabaret I’ve sat through.  It begins with the nominal hero, Cliff, starting to type out his story, which is a nice bookend placed by Spelman, whose work throughout is riveting, vital and it moves.  The wrap-around for If You Could See Her is jolting.  I can’t say enough about her work here.  Just stunning.

When casting Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, precedence is usually given to acting; if they can sing, it’s icing on the cake.  This cake is fully frosted.  Hollis Resnick and Ron E. Rains both have beautiful voices, and play the most sympathetic characters in the show, an advantage they seize and run with.  Both actors are brilliant and heartbreaking.

Kelly Felthous is an excellent Sally Bowles.  She’s funny, talented and lovable (which is crucial when playing a shallow character; more on that in a separate post.)  And her casting gets around the Tricky Part: Sally is working in a sleazy nightclub because she’s not all that good.  Felthous’ voice quality is quirky without being bad – she’s an amazing performer.  She doesn’t have a stereotypical “showgirl” body, but she’s tremendously sexy.  Her performance works.

As Cliff Bradshaw, Garrett Lutz is saddled with one of the most impossible “heroes” in theatre.  The original non-musical version was called I Am a Camera – the character was mainly an observer; to say Cliff is not proactive is like saying Donald Trump is unknowledgeable.  A vast understatement.  Anything unsatisfying about Cliff is on Joe Masteroff’s (the librettist) shoulders, not Lutz’s.  Lutz is (sorry if this description gets tedious) an excellent performer.  Overqualified for the role.  He deserves more.

The Emcee is generally played as and made up to be androgynous.  And you always know it’s a Guy in Dainty Makeup.  But when I saw a captionless photo of Joseph Anthony Byrd, I thought, “Wow.  A female Emcee.  That’s interesting.”  And I still thought it during Willkommen.  It wasn’t until Byrd did a song with his suit coat off that I saw his arm muscles and realized how well everybody here did their jobs.  Byrd is an outstanding Emcee.  Powerful singer and dancer.  And I promise I’ll tone down the raving now.

Whoops.

Forgot that the Goddess Meghan Murphy is in this.  You’re in for more raving.  Fraulein Kost the hooker is usually a very minor supporting part that you remember (if you remember her at all) under the heading of, “Okay… yeah… she was good.”  Spelman wasn’t satisfied with that and cast Kost as a towering force of nature.  Murphy dominates every scene she has, and I wish to god somebody would cast her in Gypsy.  I’ve seen her in several shows and, frankly, catching her name on the cast list for this was what tipped the decision about buying tickets.

Brandon Springman as Ernst Ludwig was great.  And there was a very interesting acting choice near the end.  During Cliff’s confrontation with Ernst, the actor usually plays Ludwig as clueless regarding Cliff’s change of heart.  Here, Springman builds to it not as, “But Cliff, I’m your friend!” so much as a hard, “I’m your friend, motherfucker – and you’d better remember that.”  Very nicely done.

Ensemble is one of the best I’ve ever seen.  I wish I had something bad to say about the performances, to make this more interesting; but I don’t and I’ll have to live with that.

Set, orchestra, everything else – all top notch.

Was there anything I didn’t like?  Yes.  There was something I hated.  Passionately.  And you’ll find that discussion here, since it involves spoilers: Don't Give Iago a Puppy

However, for those of you who don’t have that problem, this is the best production of Cabaret you’re ever going to see.  Which is par for the Paramount these days.  Actually, I don't think I raved quite enough about Kelly Felthous.  Really outstanding.  My wife and I saw the Broadway production with Alan Cumming.  Spelman’s production is ten times better.  Plus, Meghan Murphy.
  
Cabaret runs through March 7 at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora.  Info here:

Don't Give Iago a Puppy


SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this if you are unfamiliar with Cabaret and how it ends.
ALSO:  Blogger.com is not letting me upload photos right now.  I'll try again later.

“Don’t give Iago a puppy” is my phrase whenever directors/actors want to “humanize” not-so-nice characters by making them “sympathetic.”  This never means Enhancing the Bouquet of the Wine.  It means cutting 100 Proof Vodka with Water.  The most famous example is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and trying to find the Humanity in Nurse Ratched.  Which would be great if her purpose in the show wasn’t to be the frickin’ embodiment of soulless inhumanity.

Playing unsympathetic characters does NOT mean finding something sympathetic about them.  It means finding something empathetic about them.  Find something you like about the character’s evil; don’t force something “nice” on them because you’re uncomfortable.  That’s why those parts are fun.  Iago in Othello is absolutely horrible.  He’s also quick-witted and funny, which makes him palatable to the audience without ever letting them forget he’s a villain.  

One of the greatest tightrope walkers on TV these days is Robin Lord Taylor, who plays the Penguin on Gotham.  You always empathize with him, but you’d never want to spend time with him, because you’d most likely end up dead.  He doesn’t lose sight of the villainy.  If you want to cuddle with the leads in Cabaret – you’re doing it wrong.

In the movie version of Chicago, they had Fred Casely slap Roxie around before she shoots him.  Nooooooo.  She shoots him because she’s a vapid, shallow idiot – which is why someone tremendously likable has to play her.  You have to like Roxie in spite of what she does, not because she’s a Misguided Innocent.  Because the point of the show is that likability and sexiness is what enables monsters to use murders to become celebrities.  The show is an indictment of us for being shallow enough to make those people famous.

Which brings us to Cabaret at the Paramount.  Jesus.  The performers are brilliant.  But the original intent of Cabaret was a similar indictment of the audience.  It’s about how hedonistic apathy allowed the Nazis to come to power in Germany without much of a fight.  It’s telling us, “Hey, maybe you want to watch out for that quality in yourselves, or you might end up with an orange monster for a leader.”  To that end, there are deep characters (Schneider and Schultz), not so deep characters (Cliff and Sally) and deeply shallow characters (the Emcee).  The learning curve here goes to Cliff.  Trying to give them all the same depth subverts the story.

Starting with (I believe) the hideous Roundabout production, every director wants to Deepen Sally.  Cut the 100 proof vodka.  She is a twitchy emotional wreck through most of Act II, culminating in a final number, Cabaret, which is now always presented as Rose’s Turn, a mental breakdown, packaged for your convenience.  And it drives me fuckin’ bat-shit crazy.

Sally is a strong female character.  A survivor.  She is far stronger than Cliff (not in competition with him for Neurotic of the Year), and it is his discovery of that in the end which wrecks him.  The song Cabaret is not a nervous breakdown of a woman Just Realizing How Horrible Everything Is.  It is the triumphant 11:00 number of a tremendously strong woman making the choice to remain shallow because that’s how she survives.  She is exactly the same as Fraulein Schneider.  Do whatever you need to do to live.  Vomiting out “long pent-up emotions” is not tragic.  Ash-canning those emotions – in happy song – is blood-chilling.  And extremely tragic.

And let's not get started on the Emcee.

No.  Let’s.

In the Paramount production, the Emcee – and again, the performer is great – Sees All the Horror as it builds around him and is Appalled & Frightened.

Jesus H. Tapdancing Christ.  The Emcee is the villain.  He’s the BAD GUY.  He is the personification of gleeful political apathy.  And aside from the ineffective I Don’t Care Much, here’s where that hurts most: at the end of If You Could See Her (the gorilla dance), there wasn’t a shocked silence, there was applause, even though Herr Schultz had a moment at the end which should have quelled the clapping.  And here’s why that happened: nobody believed that this Warm, Human Emcee would say such a vicious thing.  They just didn't buy it.  The purpose of that number is to shock the audience with the awareness of the horror they’ve been laughing at.  If we don’t believe that the Emcee is uncaring, there’s no shock.

Don’t take my word for it.  Watch Alan Cumming and Joel Grey performing Willkommen.  Go here: Dueling Emcees.  The crowd enjoys Cumming.  But they go bat-shit for Joel Grey.  Alan Cumming had Layers.  Joel Grey was an Icon.  He is possibly the most technical, cold performer in musical history, which is why he made a lousy Amos Hart in Chicago.  But Grey was the perfect Emcee.

The Emcee is not the Lone Observer.  He’s the fucking problem.  He’s the Darth Vader of Cabaret; and Princess Leia (Sally) gleefully ends up on the Dark Side.  That’s the tragedy: societal decay, not one Poor Misunderstood singing waif.

Trying to care about these characters as sympathetic subverts the creators’ intent – not a tearful character study, but a warning to the audience not to be like those people.

The Nazis are not the villains in Cabaret.  The villains are the people who won't stop partying long enough to try and stop them.

Thus Endeth the Screed.

Friday, September 8, 2017

“Pericles” - American Players Theatre

Pericles by William Shakespeare, directed by Eric Tucker.  If you are fond of gentle, reasonable productions, displayed with grace and a great show of camouflaging its theatricality… stay the hell away from Pericles. I’ve never seen any other production so determined to shout in your face, “Hey! This is theatre!!! How about that?!”

And I loved it.

Eric Tucker is obviously a student of Douglas Adams, who wrote about improbability in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “If you have a problem… such as for instance a nineteen stone [cultural slur edited] in pyjamas trying to beat you into a pulp, the trick is to use this problem to solve itself. If you can trip or throw or deflect [cultural slur edited] as he hurtles towards you, then the fact that he weighs nineteen stone quickly becomes his worry instead of yours.”

So how to present Pericles with some sort of decorum while dealing with its constantly changing locales, cast of thousands and joyous implausibilities? You don’t. Embrace the madness, and it will become your friend.  Flaunt it like the boobs of a drunk woman trying to collect Mardi Gras beads.

You have a cast list of dozens. You’ll never be able to pay that many actors. Fuck it – we’ll do it with ten people playing all the roles. Women playing men? Men playing women? Who cares? Just get on the goddamn stage.



Pericles exists in a Neverland where Pericles and his court are costumed and set in your standard Shakespeare production. But to differentiate between all the places Pericles visits, we find American southern sharecroppers, Russian spies, a New York brothel and a British kingdom with fishermen bearing the heaviest Scottish accents this side of Tim the Enchanter. The narrator’s part is split among all ten actors, as if they are doing children’s theater… if part of a children’s show is set in a whorehouse.

Oh god… how do we age Pericles (Juan Rivera Lebron) for the final third of the show? Slap some lines on his face? Large gray wig? Nope. Split the part in two and have James Ridge play the older Pericles – after he’s through playing a woman in a housecoat (the Bawd).


There is so much theatre magic happening here that I don’t want to spoil it for you; so I’ll limit it to two examples.

1. How to show Marina aging from Baby to Fourteen? The narrator cradles a rolled-up comforter (playing the role of Baby Marina), describing Marina’s childhood. As the actress playing Marina steps forward, the narrator flips open the comforter and places it on Marina’s shoulders. Voila. Here’s Marina.

2. The jousting tournament. This was amazing, as the cast played not only the jousters but the audience watching them from the royal box. Kudos to Cristina Panfilia (later to play Marina), whose hypermacho display got applause from the audience.

And with all that goofiness, the final reconciliation was heart-wrenching.

The cast was versatile and amazing. Out of all the plays we saw that weekend, this truly was an ensemble, so I’m not going to single them out. Cher Desiree Alvarez, Tracy Michelle Arnold, David Daniel, Gavin Lawrence, Juan Rivera Lebron, Cristina Panfilio, Cage Sebastian Pierre, James Ridge, Andrea San Miguel and Marcus Truschinski were all brilliant.


Truth in advertising – due entirely to my own stupidity, we missed the first two scenes in the show. The punishment: the Antiochus scene is my favorite scene in the script and I missed it. I really wanted to see what they did with that, since I always envision Antiochus being played with the venomous yet patient exasperation of Reg in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

“But we’re going back again in a couple of weeks!” – Groucho Marx (Animal Crackers)

Margie wants to see The Three Sisters, and we’re seeing Pericles again that night. Because that’s how good it was.

(I'm ending all three current reviews with this, as it is an important point.)

One thing that aids APT in presenting 2½-to-3 hour shows is the effort involved in getting there. From DuPage County, Illinois, it’s a long drive, followed by a half mile uphill walk to get to the theatre. (Shuttles are available.) After all that work, you really don’t want to turn right around and go home after 1½ hours. You go there expecting to be grandly entertained for an entire evening. And your expectations are grandly fulfilled.

If you love classical theater, you need to go to American Players Theatre.

If you want to love full out classical theater, but have only seen abridgements or bad productions, you need to give APT a shot, because you will be converted.

If you hate classical theater… go away.


***********************************

“Pericles” by William Shakespeare. Directed by Eric Tucker.

When: Through September 29

Where: American Players Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green, Wisconsin, 53588

Tickets & Informationwww.AmericanPlayers.org




“Cyrano de Bergerac” - American Players Theatre

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, adapted and directed by James DeVita.  A wildly romantic tragicomedy, Cyrano de Bergerac is a swashbuckling epic, brought to vivid life by American Players Theatre.

Here’s the problem.  I love Cyrano de Bergerac.  For mixing comedy, tragedy, romance and some more comedy, you can’t beat this script.  So I’m going to be pickier than I am normally.  When my wife and I saw Moon Over Buffalo on Broadway, there was a line about how brilliant a director the lead character is – “He staged Cyrano de Bergerac with five people.”  I was the only one in the house who laughed.  Really loud.  (And more on this type of staging when I review Pericles.)

Cyrano de Bergerac is the story of a gallant, eloquent but homely French soldier, deeply in love with his cousin Roxanne.  She, in turn, falls for a handsome but empty headed soldier and Cyrano is determined that she shall live happily ever after, no matter what the cost to himself.



James Ridge is a fabulous Cyrano.  Charming, verbose, gallant and lonely, Cyrano is an actor’s dream role and Ridge justifies the dream.

David Daniel, who was in all three shows we saw that weekend, was excellent as Cyrano’s Comedy Relief buddy, Ragueneau, seemingly an obtuse boob, whose obtuseness is actually conscious and kind.

As Christian (Roxanne’s heartthrob), Danny Martinez is terrific as a young man, not the brightest bulb in the marquee, who eventually tires of not being able to speak for himself.

Laura Rook is great as Roxanne, a beautiful girl who is also quick-witted and spunky.

John Taylor Phillips ruled as the treacherous, pompous DeGuiche -- who might 

A large cast, terrific set & costumes, a fast but reasonable pace from the director, all go to provide (typically for APT) an entrancing evening of theater.



Now… what didn’t I like?  Three things.

1. Cyrano de Bergerac is a swashbuckler with only one real swordfight; and it was adequate.  No great shakes.  But I get it.  With actors who are memorizing two or three incredibly verbose shows per year, there’s no time to go all The Princess Bride on its ass.  Still… eh. 

2. The Orange Girl scene.  Played rather more prosaically than usual.  Cyrano has given away all his money in a Grand Gesture, and an Orange Girl (think Popcorn Vendor at a movie theater) offers him some food.  He makes yet another Grand Gesture, and the girl goes away with stars in her eyes.  But not here.  Not much was made of the moment, and the lines were cut that indicated that Cyrano could indeed win any girl he chose, if he only believed in himself.  Again, I get why this happened.  The idea is to increase the odds against Cyrano’s chances of success by adopting his own viewpoint about those odds.  I just like it when the audience thinks better of Cyrano than he does of himself. 

3. This one I don’t get.  American Players Theatre, in a bowl at the top of a hill, has excellent acoustics.  The actors aren’t usually miked, and you can hear every word.  Usually.  For some reason, after being clear as a bell for most of the night, the actors in the final act became Very Quiet and I had to strain to hear them.  Especially the nuns who are there to bring us up to speed on what’s been happening since all hell broke loose 15 years earlier.  It’s important exposition and I heard very little of it.

BUT… Cyrano de Bergerac is a remarkable epic achievement.  Required viewing.  Go see it.



(I'm ending all three current reviews with this, as it is an important point.)
One thing that aids APT in presenting 2½-to-3 hour shows is the effort involved in getting there.  From DuPage County, Illinois, it’s a long drive, followed by a half mile uphill walk to get to the theatre.  (Shuttles are available.)  After all that work, you really don’t want to turn right around and go home after 1½ hours.  You go there expecting to be grandly entertained for an entire evening.  And your expectations are grandly fulfilled.

If you love classical theater, you need to go to American Players Theatre.
If you want to love full out classical theater, but have only seen abridgements or bad productions, you need to give APT a shot, because you will be converted.
If you hate classical theater… go away.

***********************************

“Cyrano de Bergerac” by Edmond Rostand.  Adapated and directed by James DiVita.

When: Through October 6

Where: American Players Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green, Wisconsin, 53588

Tickets & Information: www.AmericanPlayers.org

“A Flea in Her Ear” - American Players Theatre

A Flea in Her Ear by Georges Feydeau, adapted and directed by David Frank.  A wild sex farce with nebbish husbands, neurotic wives, sensible friends given wrong information, a befuddled look-alike, a jealous husband with a gun and a young man with a hilarious speech impediment.  And if the theater doesn’t apologize for that, why should I?  At least they didn’t use the phrase “harelip” in this adaptation.

In the best farces – the ones that resonate – the audience has somebody to root for.  Lend Me a Tenor: Max and Tito are both extremely sympathetic.  Max (A) wants to be an opera singer and (B) is in semi-unrequited love.  Tito (A) just needs a rest and (B) is very generous in encouraging Max.  A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Pseudolus, a Sgt. Bilko-like con man, is a slave who will do anything to be free.  Even if the characters have some less than sterling qualities, we want them to achieve their goals.

As a director, I much prefer these farces to anything by Ray Cooney, who writes about assholes and dimwits who fully deserve whatever they get.  If you get the audience to like your characters, you don’t have to work as hard to get the laughs.  It’s still mind-bendingly hard work, but you’re no longer adding to your burden.

The “YesThank you!” moment in David Frank’s production of A Flea in Her Ear at American Players Theatre comes when stuffy insurance executive Chandebise, recipient of an Anonymous Love Letter (sent as a trap by his neurotic wife), comes to the conclusion that a mistake has been made and that the letter was really intended for his handsome best friend.  Until now amazed and entranced, the actor, David Daniel, suddenly deflates with logic and self-deprecation – (paraphrased) “It must be for you.  How could I possibly think a woman would be interested in me?” – with so forlorn a face that a wave of “Oooooooooooh!” emanated*** from the women in the audience.

And Daniel put the audience in his pocket and went on his merry way.


One of the many lovable qualities about the American Players Theatre is their assumption that the audience has not only intelligence but an attention span.  A Flea in Her Ear is a three hour farce (with two intermissions.)  It dragged a teeny bit in Act Three, but that’s on Feydeau’s shoulders, not the production’s.

The action was brilliantly inventive, and the characters were sincere, which is crucial.  Good farce isn’t just a series of goofy things happening to silly people.  The characters all want something desperately, and they’re dead serious about it.




I’ll be here all night if I try to single out any performer.  They are uniformly excellent, which is the sign of a good director – the aforementioned David Frank.  And I already talked about David Daniel, brilliant as both the repressed Chandebise and Poche, the drunken doorman.  So I won’t mention the fireworks performance of Kelsey Brennan as the histrionically neurotic Raymonde, Marcus Truschinki’s handsome idiot Tournel, Andrea San Miguel’s radiantly sane BFF Lucienne, Juan Rivera Lebron’s ferocious Don Homenides or, in a smaller role, Tracy Michelle Arnold as a befuddled hostess with a flat, Alice Kramden delivery… if Alice was an ex-prostitute.

There was a deserved standing ovation at curtain call.  The cast and crew worked their asses off and were hilarious doing it.



(I'm ending all three current reviews with this, as it is an important point.)
One thing that aids APT in presenting 2½-to-3 hour shows is the effort involved in getting there.  From DuPage County, Illinois, it’s a long drive, followed by a half mile uphill walk to get to the theatre.  (Shuttles are available.)  After all that work, you really don’t want to turn right around and go home after 1½ hours.  You go there expecting to be grandly entertained for an entire evening.  And your expectations are grandly fulfilled.

If you love classical theater, you need to go to American Players Theatre.
If you want to love full out classical theater, but have only seen abridgements or bad productions, you need to give APT a shot, because you will be converted.
If you hate classical theater… go away.



*** I was going to say “fauceted,” but when I checked to see if that really was a verb, I found that it was included in the Urban Dictionary with a meaning not quite what I wanted to convey.

***********************************

“A Flea in Her Ear” by Georges Feydeau.  Adapted and directed by David Frank.

When: Through October 7

Where: American Players Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green, Wisconsin, 53588

Tickets & Information: www.AmericanPlayers.org

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Jerry's Girls... As It Were

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)




In 1998, Jerry Lewis, in what was apparently an attempt at controversy to draw attention to himself, stated that women aren't funny.  And he recently doubled down on the opinion.  He needs to drag his 90 year old ass out to Steel Beam and see The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield.

This rapid-fire pastiche of All Things Bardish was originally performed by three men.  Director Jesse Hicks has cast three of the funniest women in the area to take their places.  (It's actually four, but you only see three at each performance.  Two of the performers trade off.)  The director does an expert job at keeping things moving and funny.  

But I can't say enough about the cast.  As a director, I sometimes find it difficult getting actors to perform at stage-size instead of TV size.  Enormous is the amount of energy necessary to propel an audience through an evening of fast paced comedy.  The energy level here goes through the roof.  The goal is never to make the audience feel as they got their money's worth; it's to make them feel as if they owe you more.  That is accomplished here in spades.

Julie Bayer, Jennifer Reeves-Wilson and Heidi Swarthout are not Good Actresses.  Julie Bayer, Jennifer Reeves-Wilson and Heidi Swarthout are absolutely top-notch professional-level CLOWNS.  There is no higher praise that I can give.  They are not "funny - for women."  They are funny.  Period.  Actually, I don't know if their periods are funny, but I'm willing to bet that they are.



If you are interested in spending your entertainment money wisely, this is a great bet for you.

If you are an actor interested in studying comedic performance in order to better your own - this is MUST see.

You may eventually see performers equal to Julie, Heidi and Jennifer (and probably Lori Holm, whom I didn't see).  You won't see better.


********************
"The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)"
When: Sept. 16-Oct. 9
Where: Steel Beam Theatre, 111 W. Main St., St. Charles
Tickets: $28 adult; $25 seniors (62 and over); $23 students
Information: 630-587-8521 or steelbeamtheatre.com

Monday, September 5, 2016

How to Mainly Succeed

Should you go see How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at the Marriott Theatre?  My answer is a qualified “yes.” 

How to Succeed is very close to my heart for reasons I won’t bother with here.  They’ll be in the next post, or as a comment on this one.  So, unfortunately, I’m a picky know-it-all about the show.  Let’s go through the good stuff first, then deal with the four gremlins.

This Pulitzer Prize winning musical deals with corporate America in the early 1960s.  J. Pierrepont Finch, an ambitious window washer, uses a How To book to angle his way to the top.  For fans of classic musicals, the score includes such Frank Loesser hits as I Believe in You and Brotherhood of Man.  If played correctly, it is one of the four or five funniest musicals ever written.  If played correctly.  Meaning, give up any ideas of political correctness.  It takes place in the sixties.  Men were executives, women were secretaries or wives.  Sexual behavior was not so much regulated as it was glorified.  A) That’s the way it was; accept it and realize it’s a period piece.  B) The authors are making fun of greed and sex.  That’s a farce’s JOB.  So if you dampen the venality, there’s no point in doing the show.

Even with the best of Finches, the show is usually stolen by Hedy LaRue and Bud Frump.  Angela Ingersoll is the best Hedy LaRue I’ve ever seen. Playing a cartoon sex bomb, Ingersoll nails the three most important aspects of the character.  One of these is comic timing.

Instead of going for the usual high pitched Marilyn-Monroe-from-Brooklyn imitation (or Carol Channing, as Maureen Arthur played it in the movie version), Ingersoll goes for a low, occasionally raspy cigarette voice that is perfect for the character.  Polite society decrees that I must not mention the actress’s breasts in a review.  But Angela Ingersoll is brilliant at making her tits funny; which is what the part calls for.  I was not fond of Terry Hamilton’s J.B. Biggley.  He kept throwing in a lot of childish shtick into a part that epitomizes Dignity.  His dignity can’t be overthrown if Biggley isn’t dignified.  Hamilton was solely a cartoon… whereas, when Hedy says, “Don't start getting sincereThat's not fair,” Ingersoll looked truly wounded and seemed about to cry.  That’s how you give humanity to a cartoon character.  I can’t say enough about Ingersoll’s performance, so I’ll move on.

As Bud Frump, Alex Goodrich had an interesting approach, which I’m still not sure if I liked or not.  Frump, the villain, is usually the audience favorite because he’s so damned ineffective at villainy.  He’s the Wile E. Coyote of musical comedy.  But Goodrich, who is amazingly talented and nails all the jokes he is permitted to nail (more on that in the Gremlin section), gives Bud a snarling, roaring, venomous rage that is a bit off-key with the breeziness of the script.  I didn’t hate it; but still… Anyway, Goodrich is mostly hilarious.

Choreographer Melissa Zaremba did some brilliant things.  Cinderella, Darling worked for the first time since 1961 because A) nobody was going through the motions on a song they regarded as dated; they bought into it and B) the choreographer made it work by turning it into a pseudo-tap number instead of a static stand-there-and-sing comedy number.  And I won’t spoil the moment in Brotherhood of Man when the executives realize they have to join in.  Very funny (and subtle) stuff.

Jessica Naimy was a wonderful Rosemary, with the perfect angle on the character.  Instead of a sweet (if pushy) doormat, Naimy’s Rosemary looked unflinchingly at her options – secretary or wife – and was just as hungry and conniving about her goal as Finch was about his.

Derek Hasenstab was great in the dual roles of Twimble and Womper, as were Jason Grimm as Bratt and Marya Grandy as Smitty.  The ensemble was expert at their jobs.  Felicia P. Fields as Miss Jones seemed to be very ill the night I saw it, so I’m going to cut her some slack.

The Gremlins:

1. Mentioned a bit earlier.  How to Succeed is a period piece.  If you can go along with the idea that sex and greed are funny, you’ll have a good time.

2. Pacing.  Sigh.  Just sigh.  The first half of Act One is unbearable.  There is a rehearsal technique called “speed through.”  You just spit out the lines as fast as you can, no emotion, no communicating, no periods, no spaces between words.  Don Stephenson directed the majority of Act One as a speed through.  When Rosemary meets Finch, you can’t understand a word she says because she’s been directed to spitoutallthewordsasfastaspossible.  And it’s not just her.  Everybody does it.  The message, I guess, is that we’re on a rocket ride!  What it actually says is that the director has no confidence in the material and wants to get it over with.  If he doesn’t care, why should we?  Punchlines?  What punchlines?

3. The Matthew Broderick revival has a lot to answer for.  First – Miss Jones, who is now nearly always cast as a large black lady.  Sigh.  A black Finch… great.  Or Rosemary.  Or Hedy.  Or Bud.  Or Womper.  But Miss Jones is the one character in How to Succeed who needs to be played by a middle-aged, starchy, repressed white woman, because anything else kills the joke in Brotherhood of Man – that the most unexpected person in the room suddenly decides that she is Mahalia Jackson.  It’s not prejudice; it’s getting the joke right.  It's like casting Sean Connery as Maxwell Smart.  He's great at what he does, but he's wrong for the part.

Then, in this production, not only is the wrong person singing the song, but it is turned from gospel into scat.  Bad scat, at that.  It kills the double meaning of “Oh, brother!” if you don’t actually sing those words.  Brotherhood is not just an eleven o’clock number – it’s a stinging satire of redemption, being sung by irredeemable people.

4. The second Matthew Broderick effect: miscasting Finch.  Ari Martin is a wonderful leading man.  But you don’t need a handsome, romantic leading man for Finch.  He isn’t a cuddly puppy dog; he’s a slinky, sneaky cat pretending to be a cuddly puppy dog.  This is one of those parts, like Harold Hill in The Music Man, where Comedy Comes First.  If Finch can dance and carry a tune, great.  But the primary factor of the triple threat is comedy.  Not Matthew Broderick.  Not Daniel Radcliffe.  Ideally, you need a young Nathan Lane, who can take over the stage and defend it against all comers.  It’s why Young Frankenstein is never going to work onstage – Frederick requires an equally triple-threat man when the comedy should lead.  Ari Martin is a tremendous singer and dancer, and can play comedy.   But he’s not an aggressive clown; and that’s a minus.

Bottom line: if you aren’t as picky as I am about How to Succeed, you’ll have a great time.  When the amphetamines wear off enough to let the jokes land, there are a lot of laughs.  The singing and dancing are expert.  It’s a decent evening in the theatre.

HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING

Mostly recommended
When: Through Oct. 16
Where: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire
Tickets: $50 – $55
Info: (847) 634-0200

Run time: 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

"Funnyman" at Northlight Theatre






WORLD PREMIERE
New York City, 1959. Fading vaudeville comic Chick Sherman, along with his long-suffering agent, tries to revive his career with a role in an avant-garde off-Broadway play. While his grown daughter searches for answers from her absentee showbiz father, a lifetime of private and professional struggles rise to the surface, cracking the polished public persona of the world's favorite former "funny man."

Funnyman marks Northlight's fourth world premiere with playwright Bruce Graham, author of The Outgoing Tide, Stella & Lou and White Guy on the Bus.

Running Time: approximately 2 hours including one 15-minute intermission.

Buy tickets.  Now.  One of my favorite playwrights, Bruce Graham, has a new show starring the terrific George Wendt & Tim Kazurinsky, as well as Amanda Drinkall (Venus in Fur, Goodman).  This is one of Graham's best plays, despite a horrible (but correctable) misstep at the beginning that nearly sinks the show.  More on that later.

When you see the show, as you really should, be sure to read the program notes and examine informational displays in the lobby (except for the one about Bert Lahr's wife Mercedes, which gives away too much information.)  The premise here is that Chick Sherman (Wendt), three parts Bert Lahr to one part Buster Keaton, is prodded by his long-time agent (Kazurinsky) to accept a role in an off-Broadway production of an avant-garde play.  It is based on both Lahr's and Keaton's experiences with Samuel Beckett projects directed by Alan Schneider, a condescending pompous ass who directed pivotal productions of Beckett and Albee in the fifties and early sixties.

The subplot involves Sherman's daughter (Drinkall) trying to discover something, anything about her mother from her secretive father.

Now -- the play itself is not a Wacky, Slapstick Comedy.  It's a typical Graham mix of comedy and drama; what used to be called a "play," before people demanded narrow specification.  It is very funny, but rendered many audience members damp-eyed near the end.  Not me, of course.  Tower of strength, here.  Really.

Graham is a playwright who knows how to construct a script for maximum entertainment value.  He wants people to get sucked into the world of his play, and he succeeds beautifully.  Chick Sherman is a complex man - uneducated, but fascinated by a script he doesn't understand; a working actor, but tyrannical to the people who hire him; and supposedly a cold, aloof fellow, unemotional about anything but theater.  Supposedly.

George Wendt is wonderful as the grumpy hypochondriac Chick, a man who flat-out knows comedy and suffers fools less than gladly.  Sharp comic timing and powerful dramatic work.  It's one of the more magnificent performances you'll see this year.

Tim Kazurinsky is lovable as Chick's agent, Milt "Junior" Karp, who wants to help his old-school client bridge the gap in new theatrical tastes and revitalize his career.  Kazurinsky is able to play lovable, but with bite.




As Chick's spunky daughter Katharine, Amanda Drinkall goes toe-to-toe with Wendt in what seems to be a last ditch attempt to establish some sort of relationship with him.  Her performance is winning and real.

The rest of the cast is terrific as well - Steve Haggard as Katharine's boyfriend Matthew, Rob Lindley as playwright Victor LaPlant (based more on Tennessee Williams than Samuel Beckett) and Michael Perez as Alan Schneider-esque Nathan Wise all do brilliant work.  Lindley is hilarious and the Comedy Student in my soul loved the skewering of Alan Schneider.

B.J. Jones' direction was crisp and smooth.  The play flowed well through the various playing areas of Jeffrey D. Kmiec's great set.

ISSUES:
* The preshow music contains Catch Our Act at the Met by Bert Lahr and Dolores Gray, from Two on the Aisle.  There was no need to speed it up so that they sounded like the Chipmunks.  It made singing along difficult.

* The lobby display about Bert Lahr's wife Mercedes gives away too much information.  Don't read it, because you'll be able to figure out where the climax of the play is going.  Read all the other background material, however.

* Nearly killed the show: both acts open with filmed segments of Chick Sherman doing commercials, as did Lahr and Keaton.  Fine.  However... it was decided that Chick should be a deadpan comic like Keaton, while retaining Lahr's goofiness.

A. I'm not the first writer to state that "deadpan" doesn't really apply to Keaton.  His face was greatly expressive.  He just didn't smile.  Closeups of Wendt in the commercials show an unsmiling face and completely dead eyes.  Dead eyes are not funny ones; they're actually kind of frightening.

B. A director of a revue once asked me and another actor to perform Who's on First, imitating not Abbott and Costello, but Laurel and Hardy.  I said, "But it won't work; it's an entirely different rhythm.  Laurel and Hardy doing Who's on First would take days."  And that's the issue with these commercials:

Commercials with Buster Keaton were usually silent and had him calmly reacting to strange situations or causing the situations himself, such as drawing a hat/coat rack in chalk and then hanging his hat and coat on it.  They were strictly Situational commercials.  Lahr's commercials depended completely on his persona; confused, panicked, surly, amazed, distrustful.  Vastly expressive facially.  Lahr's commercials were Personality commercials.  So here's the issue - Wendt has been directed to perform Bert Lahr Personality commercials as Buster Keaton Situational commericals.  And it isn't a bit funny.  So right from the get-go, we're told that this is a legendary comic, but what we're shown of him isn't funny, due entirely to the way it was directed.

And this is highly fixable.  Wendt doesn't have to smile, just let his face come alive without smiling.  Catch phrases don't land from inanimate delivery.  The play recovers nicely, but it shouldn't need to recover at all.  I wouldn't bother so much about it, but it comes right at the beginning and sets a wrong tone.

That picky complaint aside, Wendt, Kazurinsky and company, with Graham's script, provide one of the most entertaining nights you'll spend in a theater.  So, go spend.

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Funnyman runs through October 11.  Reservations and information available here: Northlight Theatre