NJ Community group has a successful go at “Much Ado About Nothing”

When I commented to Holmdel Theatre Company’s  “Much Ado About Nothing” producer that I did not recognize any cast names (except hers) from prior community productions, she explained that many of the ‘usual suspects’ shun Shakespeare auditions. Rehearsal periods are usually longer by a week or more, as well as by hours, and memorization can be a tough go for people with families and day-jobs. It’s not that they’re scared of the material, just leery of the commitment.

Conversely, some candidates show up because it is Shakespeare.  While mostly New Jersey based, a majority of the cast (of 17) are Holmdel first-timers. Others are area high school students, a talent source that the Company accesses regularly (to their credit). “Much Ado About Nothing” is not the easiest Shakespearean comedy to bring off successfully. It’s not fanciful like “Midsummer Night’s Dream” or joked-up like “A Comedy of Errors.”  Unlike those, “Much Ado” doesn’t wear its comedy on its sleeve. It has an unrepentant villain and serious obstacles to its happy ending.

The cast of Holmdel Theatre Company’s “Much Ado About Nothing”

“Much Ado” being three-quarters prose (as opposed to verse)  eases the burden somewhat, but if among the Holmdel cast there was trepidation over the Elizabethan construction or the memorization thereof, it was not in evidence on opening night. Despite extraneous pauses-for-effect that elongate the evening, the result is accessible Shakespeare. (Anyone who considers ‘accessible’ a dismissive comment has not sat through much muddled Shakespeare.)

Shakespeare set the play in 1600-something Sicily, in the household of Governor Leonato of Messina. Here it is moved to Messina, New York (who knew?) in 1968, which has little effect on the play besides its costuming, although the stark décor and absence of set pieces (save one bench) does not enhance eye appeal.

The governor (an imposing Ed Favor) is hosting Prince Don Pedro (Andrew James Gordon) and his half-brother Don John, whom the Prince had defeated in battle. (Don John, enacted menacingly by Peter Hewes, is not a happy camper.) Also present are war heroes Claudio (Shan Williams) and Lord Benedick of Padua (James Weeks) as well as Leonato’s daughter Hero (Elizabeth Colagrande) and his adopted niece Beatrice (Tess Ammerman).

Benedick (James Weeks) and Claudio (Shan Williams) at left. bride Hero (Elizabeth Colagrande) and Beatrice (Tess Ammerman) at right, with members of the cast.

The bulk of the play concerns Hero and Claudio’s march to the altar, nearly sabotaged by jealous Don John’s nefarious scheming, which involves conspirators who are eventually undone by bumbling Constable Dogberry and his comically inept deputies. But it is the smart, caustic relationship between Beatrice and Benedick that has come to represent the play, so much so that their names have served as an alternate title. (Hector Berlioz’s 1861 opera is actually entitled Béatrice et Bénédicte.)

There’s no doubt that B and B are meant for each other, but not before they overcome their mutual aversion to the state of matrimony. “That a woman conceived me, I thank her,” says Benedick. “But I will live a bachelor.” And Beatrice would “rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.” (Spoiler: They both cave.) Weeks is a fine Benedick, handsome and quick-witted, but like many another Benedick, he plays by Beatrice’s rules. Ms. Ammerman is well cast; she has the self-possessed bearing and hint of glamour that would win over any Benedick. Her Beatrice is saucy, not coy, and strong, not overbearing. Lapsing in and out of a cultured Downton Abbey accent is distracting, and her costume changes might be appropriate in some other play. I counted five (not all flattering); no one else has more than two.

She is, at any rate, an audience favorite, and while drawing parallels between Shakespeare and the present day is old news, darned if Beatrice’s refusal to be treated as chattel doesn’t bring to mind the #MeToo movement – and Southwest Airlines Captain Tammie Jo Shults.

Concentrating on Bea and Ben does not diminish the work of other Holmdel actors. Williams and Colagrande are a believable pair of young lovers. We root for them. Others who impress include Mark Zebro as Borachio, Don John’s enforcer, who wraps things up by coming clean near the end. Rupert Ravens is an amusing Dogberry, but his (and others’) mid-speech ruminations are out of character. Shakespeare doesn’t need much scenery; the text makes locations clear, but dead-air pauses on an empty stage are just that. Holmdel producer Laurie Devino adds to her string of impressive cameo appearances with Verges, Dogberry’s deputy. (Mirrored glasses are scary.)

From left: Benedick (James Weeks), Hero (Elizabeth Colagrande), Leonato (Ed Favor), Friar Francis (Howard Smith)

Perky high schooler Bella Ashton is very good in a couple of supporting roles, as is Julia Lupi as Ursula, Hero’s attendant, who conspires with her mistress and with Margaret (Jessica Freeland), another attendant, to trick Beatrice into believing that Benedick loves her. That scene and a similar trick on Benedick are slapsticky, with Bea and Ben both crawling around the floor and under the bench. It is out of character, but at least they both do it.

Those bits noted, director Tom Frascatore has kept the play free of gimmicks. Relationships are established, plot points are made, resolutions are natural. And kudos to him for finessing the scene where Claudio has been known to strike Hero. His anger toward her is still there, but wailing on her would be cringeworthy.

This is the fourth Shakespeare I have seen at Holmdel; good for them. I look forward to the fifth – and hope some of these same strolling players show up to audition.

Through April 28: Fri & Sat at 8PM and Sun April 22 at 2PM. 36 Crawfords Corner Road, Holmdel NJ (on Holmdel High campus). Tickets ($25/ $15 students)  www:holmdeltheatrecompany.org


Don’t get shut out at the gate: put your money on “The Sting”

What do you look for in a musical? Songs and singers that make you glad you have ears? Multi-style choreography and dancers adept at every one of them? How ‘bout a plot that freezes your attention through every scene.  And finally, a charismatic leading man heading up a cast that seems to be enjoying their work as much as you are enjoying them at it.  ‘If only,’ you say? Well “The Sting” is that musical. (And Harry Connick, Jr. is that star.)

The adaptation of the 1973 Oscar-winning movie is World Premiering at Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, New Jersey through April 29, and anyone that doubts it is headed for Broadway is reminded that ”Newsies,” “The Bronx Tale” and “Bandstand,” among others, began at Paper Mill. In gambling lingo, “The Sting” is a lock to make that leap.

And gambling lingo is more than appropriate. For those who have not seen “The Sting,” in a cinema or on TCM, it is set in 1936 Chicago, where two con men are putting a “sting” on NYC high-roller Doyle Lonnegan after he has one of their pals killed. The flick was – and remains – notable for the performances of Paul Newman and Robert Redford and for the use of Scott Joplin’s ragtime music in setting the scenes. There is, in fact, an overall musical sensibility to the movie. What took so long?

Harry Connick, Jr., center, in the faux betting parlor where The Sting unfolds.

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Some other Damon Runyon guys and dolls in “Three Wise Guys”

I am sitting in Jersey Mike’s eating a mini number seven sub when I hear that Stephanie “Stormy” Clifford is suing Donald “Grab ‘Em” Trump.

That sentence is in the present tense, but you can tell it was in the past, right? Context makes it clear, but it is deceptive; writing in the “historical present” does not come easy. Every sentence is a challenge. No writer ever mastered that voice better than did Damon Runyon, to great effect and with absolute clarity. The form takes on a sort of formality, with virtually all dialogue in complete sentences and a near-total absence of contractions (nary a don’t for do not). The argot is known, in fact, as Runyonesque.

Born in 1884, Runyon was a transplanted Kansan who became a sportswriter (for the New York American) after serving in the Spanish-American war, and then a First World War correspondent and columnist for Hearst. He also wrote poetry and in assorted prose forms before zeroing in on the short story. He died in 1946.

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Escape to – or from – Margaritaville: It’s a tossup

In order to enjoy a jukebox musical, it helps to be a fan of the songbook going in, but that’s no guarantee.  ABBA-adoring fans kept “Mamma Mia” running for years on its easily replicated disco score, even with its silly book (story). “Ring of Fire,” on the other hand, bombed, despite its 38 songs associated with Johnny Cash, largely because that show lacked the one ingredient that made those 38 numbers memorable: Johnny Cash. And “Lennon,” featuring John’s music and interview excerpts, opened and closed in six weeks. (Investors in a Lennon bio-musical with a faux fab four must have needed a tax loss.) “Jersey Boys” is an exception to received wisdom; the insider tale of the music industry is well-crafted, with Four Seasons songs for exclamation points.

“Escape to Margaritaville,” which opened last week at the Marquis Theatre in Times Square, is a buffet of twenty-five Jimmy Buffett songs (he wrote both music and lyrics) performed over two acts within a formula romcom about a Caribbean island romance. In tried and true fashion, our leading couple meets cute, hooks up, splits up, and reunites just in time for a curtain call (whew). There’s also the traditional couple number two, who end up together after she sheds her boorish fiancé who guilts her about her weight, which, btw, is normal-range attractive and strong enough to finally deck the loser-guy (to much applause).

Paul Alexander Nolan and the cast of “Escape To Margaritaville” [Photos: Matthew Murphy]

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

Group Therapy off-Broadway: “Good for Otto”

Another fourth wall bites the dust in The New Group’s production of “Good for Otto,” at the Pershing Square Signature Center. David Rabe’s play, which premiered in 2015 at Chicago’s Gift Theatre, is not set in Grover’s Corners, but, we are told as the cast files into stage-perimeter seats, in the Berkshires town of Harrington, where our host, Dr. Robert Michaels (Ed Harris), is a counselor and chief administrator at Norwood Mental Health Center.

The play that follows (after a group hum) takes place in the Center’s offices and treatment rooms and in Dr. Michaels’ haunted memory bank. Acted by a superb 15-member ensemble, directed by New Group’s artistic director Scott Elliott and overlong by just a few minutes at three hours, including intermission, “Good for Otto” is fascinating Theatre.

Ed Harris, pitchpipe at the ready, and the cast of “Good for Otto” [Photos: Monique Carboni]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Two plays, two women, one each. “In the Body of the World” and “Wild Horses”

It takes more than memorization to put across a solo play (although that element should not be minimized). Those sometimes deceptively crowded affairs require the establishing of unique personal connections to the audience and, in most, the enacting of multiple characters through variations of voice and demeanor in such a way that leaves no doubt as to who is whom when. High profile Broadway outings this season have included John Lithgow’s “Stories By Heart” and John Leguizamo’s “Latin History for Morons.” (Solo Performance is a category at both Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards.)

No one has achieved more solo-show recognition than Eve Ensler, primarily for “The Vagina Monologues,” which she wrote and performed solo. (It has morphed into a women’s ensemble piece, not to its detriment.) Ensler’s “In the Body of the World” is now running off-Broadway, while on the Broadway in Long Branch, New Jersey, the resourceful NJ Repertory Company is featuring “Wild Horses,” written by Allison Gregory and performed by Estelle Bajou. Both pieces are also directed by women: “World” by Diane Paulus (“Waitress,” etc. on B’way) and “Horses” by NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas. Both actors deserve that memorization shout-out, but it is their rapport with the audience and their evocations of diverse persons (of both sexes) that most impress.

Eve Ensler [Photo: Joan Marcus]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway, Professional, Regional