Improved with age: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”

Two things to know about George Street Playhouse’s temporary home on the Cook College Campus of Rutgers University: One is that the venue is temporary only in the sense that GSP will be moving back to downtown New Brunswick when the Livingston Avenue performing arts center is completed – in an estimated two years. In the meantime, however, the Cook Campus facility is comfortably sleek and technically up-to-date in all aspects.

The second thing is that the opening production, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” is a clear winner. Re-vamped by the creators of the 1996 original that ran twelve years off-Broadway (second-longest after “The Fantasticks”), the new version retains a goodly portion of the original with tweaks that make the whole enterprise fresh as the proverbial daisy.

“Love…Perfect…Change” is a series of vignettes, most musical, about relationships. Each scene is independent of the others, but a timeline emerges, starting with a first-date situation and progressing through courtship, marriage, child-rearing, etc. Joe DiPietro’s book and lyrics progress as well. Set to Jimmy Roberts’s engaging tunes, the earliest jokey material matures up to and including the penultimate “Funerals are for Dating” scene, which is an uncanny combination of comedy and poignancy.

From Left: Mitchell Jarvis, Lindsay Nicole Chambers, George Merrick, Karen Burthwright [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

While up-dates proliferate, all but one of the scene titles are the same. That one exception, originally “I’ll Call You Soon (Yeah Right),” is now “When a Man Texts a Woman.” And while the title “Whatever Happened to Baby’s Parents?” remains, the couple is now same-sex.

Many of the headings indicate the topics. “Cantata for a First Date,” “Wedding Vows” and “Sex and the Married Couple,” for example, seem obvious, but the clever internals hold delightful surprises. George Street’s artistic director David Saint helmed this one for laughs, for sighs and for human connection. A triple success. Charlie Williams’s choreography is sprightly. (That dad, mom and two kids avoid colliding in “The Family That Drives Together” is a miracle.) Scenic and Media Design is credited to Jim Youmans, whose platforms, projections and set pieces enhance every scene.

The Family That Drives Together

The four performers and the four musicians, under musical director Joshua Zecher-Ross, flirt with perfection. The few less-than-stellar sketches are elevated by the talent, and the best of them are miniature marvels. Mitchell Jarvis and Karen Burthwright are “A Stud and a Babe” (are they ever!) and George Merrick and Lindsay Nicole Chambers turn “Tear Jerk,” about a guy’s breakdown at a chick flick, into a gem. In various configurations, the four are fresh and sharp throughout, and, lucky for us, they each get a solo turn.

My 1996 review closed with “You will enjoy this musical review. You’ll also enjoy repeating the title to your friends.” The newly refreshed “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” is even better…and that title still zings.

Through November 12 at George Street Playhouse on the Rutgers Cook Campus (for now). For schedule, directions and tickets ($15 to $79):www.georgesteetplayhouse.org

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A highly anticipated industry-insider event returns to NYC when the National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT) holds its 29th Annual Festival of New Musicals on Thursday and Friday, October 19 and 20.

The Festival, personifying NAMT’s mission to nurture the creation, development and production of new musicals, attracts theatrical producers from around the world for the premieres of eight new musicals, presented in 45-minute blocks over the two days. All production costs are underwritten by the non-profit organization NAMT, at no cost to the writing teams. To date, 244 musicals by 460 writers from around the world have been introduced at the Festival.

Among this year’s tempting titles (culled from 240 submissions) are “Girl Shakes Loose,” billed as a “three-city coming-of-age journey” and “Dancing Grenadine,” about a jingle composer’s fraught relationships with his girlfriend Louise, his brother Paul and his Labrador Retriever (also named Paul).

Many cast members are Broadway veterans, including the current star of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” Chilina Kennedy (pictured). She will appear in “Prom Queen,” based on the true story of a Canadian teenager who took the Catholic School Board to court over their refusal to allow him to attend the prom with his boyfriend. (Ms. Kennedy was an unforgettable, luminous Maria in “West Side Story” at the Stratford Ontario Festival a few years ago.)

The NAMT Festival’s immediate goal is to connect producers with writers, so that their shows can continue their development trajectory. Long-term is to expand the repertoire, bringing new musical theatre to audiences around the world. Short of World Peace, I cannot envision a worthier goal.

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway, Professional, Regional

A likeable “As You Like It” off-B’way and a tasty Dinner Theater in the suburbs

There must be as many ways of creating the Forest of Arden onstage as there are productions of “As You Like It.” In director John Doyle’s minimalist production of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy at Classic Stage Company, you know you’re in Arden when the multiple globes hanging over the playing area glow green. That effect is enhanced by the light touch of the mostly young, buoyant cast, headed by spritely Hannah Cabell as Rosalind, Shakespeare’s longest female role by line count.

Beginning as a reading, with the ten-member cast grouped around Ellen Burstyn seated on a theatrical trunk holding the book, the play soon spills out onto the playing area. Burstyn, who goes on to play Jaques, stays seated, following along, keeping us aware that what’s unfolding is a play, a point that Shakespeare makes in several plays (“Shrew,” pointedly). The “As You Like It” characters often see themselves as actors, and at the end, the audience is invited to think of themselves the same.  Doyle’s vision unfolds over 100 continuous minutes, made possible by judicious editing that retains the play’s witty interlacing of disguises and mistaken identity.

Duke Senior (Bob Stillman) and Jaques (Ellen Burstyn) [Photos: Richard Termine]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway, Professional, Regional

A first-class revival of an American classic: “A Raisin in the Sun” at Two River Theater

There is little that I can add to the praise that has been heaped upon Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” virtually from the hour it opened on Broadway in 1959. Ms. Hansberry, at 29, was the youngest American playwright and the first African-American to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play of the Year. Her play has not only stood the test of time, it has become a revered classic. Reviewing a revival in Chicago twenty-four years later, New York Times critic Frank Rich declared that playwright Hansberry had “changed American theater forever with her first-produced play.”

What I can do, having seen the original, which cemented Sydney Poitier’s stardom, plus a 1995 staging at George Street Playhouse and the 2004 and ’14 Broadway revivals (with Sean ‘P Diddy’ Combs and Denzel Washington, respectively), is to offer an assessment of the current production at Two River Theater in Red Bank NJ.

Deeply felt and superbly directed and acted, it is a triumph. If you have never seen the play or would like a reminder of its brilliance, get yourself to Two River before October 8.

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Blog, Professional, Regional

“Prince of Broadway” = Nostalgia on Broadway

“Prince of Broadway” has been variously compared to a highlight reel, a mix-tape and a best-of list. Simply stated, “Prince” is a compilation of musical numbers from sixteen of the twenty-or-so Broadway musicals produced and/or directed by Harold Prince. Performed by nine Broadway veterans over two acts, the numbers span Prince’s career, from “The Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees” in the 1950s through “Phantom of the Opera,” directed some 30 years after those early successes.

In between, and also represented here, were “West Side Story,”  “Follies,” “Cabaret” and “Sweeney Todd,” to name a few. (They weren’t all hits: remember “It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman”? Me neither.)       The critical reaction to the show has been lukewarm at best; I rather liked it.

Tony Yazbeck and Kaley Ann Voorhees from “West Side Story”

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

“F Theory” in Long Branch NJ: an imperfect blendship

For starters, the F in “F Theory,” world-premiering at New Jersey Repertory Company, does not stand for what you are thinking. No; it represents friendship, in this case not even with benefits, so if you stop reading now and go back to surfing Facebook, I’ll understand.

The friendship in the play is between two women who meet as college roommates and whose relationship endures – for better and for worse, in richer and poorer, etc. – into old age. Theirs is a friendship-interruptus, with alternating periods of bonding and ghosting as their experiences and values variously coincide and diverge. A show of hands, please, from those who have never had an on-again, off-again friendship? Didn’t think so.

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Blog, Professional, Regional

Curvy Widow on 43rd Street and Songbook Summit on 59th

Pinpointing a target audience for some shows is easy. Ten-to-twelve-year-old girls whose parents took them to “Annie” were seen a decade or so later with one another at “Rent,” while their college professors were at a revival of “Mourning Becomes Electra.”  Along those lines, it is unsurprising that, at a recent Saturday matinee of “Curvy Widow,” I sat among a couple hundred women within shouting distance of 55, either way. And judging by their reactions, they were all having a fine time, vicariously sharing the racy activities of leading character Bobby, one of their own, played with earthy humor by Nancy Opel, one of their own. (Admittedly, I got into it, too, just not to the same extent.)

Nancy Opel, center, and the “Curvy Widow” cast [Photos: Matthew Murphy]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway