Lotsa’ love for “Mad Love” (not so much for “The Cherry Orchard”)

Thinking about Mad Love, the word “lark” popped into my head. Where’d that come from? I thought, so I looked it up in my Oxford: Something mischievous…an amusing adventure or escapade.

Marisa Smith’s play, running through November 20 at New Jersey Repertory Company, is a lark. The self-labeled “Romantic Comedy” may be “just” a RomCom, with the requisite hang-ups, but its additional descriptive “for Cynical Times” elevates it, if not out of that category, at least to its top-quality level.

Alex Trow and Graham Techler (Photos: SuzAnne Barabas)

Alex Trow and Graham Techler (Photos: SuzAnne Barabas)

Twenty-something singles Brandon (Graham Techler) and Sloane (Alex Trow) have been dating casually (sex at her place, but no sleep-overs) for a few months, after meeting at House of Brews. (He thinks he picked her up. She knows better.)  At dinner, she blindsides him with a request to donate sperm that she can freeze for insemination later (but not past when she can still rock a post-maternity bikini). At first, Brandon’s shocked refusal seems priggish, even for a middle-school teacher, but he – via playwright Smith – makes a sensible case for it later.

Brandon’s brother Doug (Jared Michael Delaney), mildly impeded from a brain injury suffered in a fraternity prank, nonetheless contributes somehow-wise and often-witty commentary, frequently verbalized in a barrage of f-words (some gratuitously prefixed), an amateurish playwright choice that enhances neither the character nor the actor. Finally, there’s Doug’s birthday present, in the person of Katerina (Brittany Proia), a Ukranian “escort” who worms her way into Doug’s affections and, more important, his confidence, before conning him (maybe) out of his prized possession.

Jared Michael Delaney and Brittany Proia

Jared Michael Delaney and Brittany Proia

We’ve seen these types before, but rarely as well depicted on the page and on their feet. Ms. Trow is a special treat as the delightfully animated (even when seated) Sloane, whose late-revealed dark secret, we realize retroactively, has swayed the character from the start. Brandon is a fellow of several qualities, not all admirable, but all secondary to the charm with which Techler imbues him. For a goodly portion of the play Sloane and Brandon are mutually antagonistic; nonetheless, there’s considerable chemistry between them.

Delaney rises above the grating lingo to reveal Doug’s child-like openness and vulnerability. That he also executes the intricate set changes (another triumph for designer Jessica Parks) seems somehow in character. The hooker with a heart of gold (or maybe not) may be a stereotype, but Ms. Proia fleshes this one out nicely.  Evan Bergman’s deft direction illuminates the situation and the relationships over a just-right span of ninety minutes.

The several story threads are introduced (and acted) naturally and, in one challenging example, tastefully. These are real people in compressed but believable situations. A couple of Mad Love plot developments are predictable half-way in, but one last-minute zinger is not; and it wins your heart. Factor in that you’ll learn who Napolean Lajoie was (and how to pronounce his name) and you’ve got yourself a Major League lark.

Through Nov 20 at NJ Repertory, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Thurs&Fri at 8PM; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2PM. Tickets ($45): 732-229-3166 or at www.njrep.org

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There’s an advantage to seeing different productions of the same play, as, in fact, we do if we stick around long enough. Between a plethora of revivals and periodic resuscitations (Neil Simon’s about due), it’s hardly avoidable. And of course there’s Shakespeare; in 2014 I saw four King Lears, each different from the others. The re-visits illustrate how the same words can be variously presented and also serve to instill confidence in one’s judgment (even of a first-time experience).

Of a 2010 Shaw Festival production of The Cherry Orchard I wrote that although Chekhov considered his play a comedy, “the story is melancholy in any event and here it’s very slow going,” due in large part to darkness (literally) and “…plodding direction.” It ran two hours and forty minutes (including intermission).

From left: John Glover, Joel Greay, Diane Lane and Chuck Cooper (Photo: Joan Marcus)

From left: John Glover, Joel Grey, Diane Lane and Chuck Cooper (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The current Broadway revival features Stephen Karam’s (The Humans) new translation and Diane Lane’s leading-role appearance. It couldn’t be more different. It’s still a melancholy situation, but you wouldn’t know it from this quasi-frenetic production, which runs a half-hour shorter than the Shaw’s.

Chekhov is not action-driven. People talk among themselves as situations and relationships develop. The Cherry Orchard begins with family members arriving home. Madame R. (Ms. Lane), facing bankruptcy, wants to hold on to her estate, with its glorious cherry orchard. A neighboring businessman suggests leveling the orchard for a resort complex, which horrifies the family. Eventually the estate is sold at auction – to the neighbor. Portending the decline of the Russian landed classes, the play ends with the household packed up and gone, the sound of axes in the orchard, and the on-stage death of faithful old family retainer Firs, played by Joel Grey, who’s not only downright peppy until the death scene, but also might be the first Firs to get entrance applause.

Despite some decent performances (in secondary roles), it’s painful to watch bulky mature actors navigate the tiny chairs in the former-nursery scene and head-scratching to observe the extended masquerade-dance scene. British director Simon Godwin’s reliance on “business” can be distracting: I defy anyone to recall daughter Anya’s speeches, delivered while she plays the cat’s cradle hand game. There’s even a Chekhov’s gun, but it’s a MacGuffin – and a weak one at that.

The Cherry Orchard is about the passage of time; this version is more like a race against time. Save yourself the couple hours.

At Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre, West 42nd Street, NYC. Schedule/ticket info: www.roundabouttheatre.org

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Heil you-know-who: “The Producers” at Paper Mill Playhouse

The Producers has the potential to offend pretty much everyone: Jews, gays, women, seniors, prudes and the self-appointed Good Taste Police. When well staged, however, the holder of a record dozen Tony Awards (Hamilton won one fewer) replaces offense with amusement.  Mel Brooks’s adaptation of his own movie is a personal tour de force: he wrote the music, the lyrics and, with Thomas Meehan, the book.

The hit 2001 musical and the 2016 Regional Theatre Tony Award-winning Paper Mill Playhouse are a winning combination. Paper Mill is widely recognized for first-class musical revivals; The Producers joins recent-seasons Follies and The Full Monty as prime examples. (The venue is also a pre-Broadway house; Newsies and Chazz’s Bronx Tale premiered there, and The Bodyguard musical opens next month).

The cast of "Springtime for Hitler": The musical-within-the-musical "The Producers"

The cast of “Springtime for Hitler”: The musical-within-the-musical “The Producers”

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How to save the farm? Irving Berlin to the rescue!

Back in the day, I produced and performed in summer-stock musicals. They usually featured about six principals and double that number of backup singer-dancers. I like to think the shows were pretty good; the relatively un-demanding audiences certainly enjoyed them.

Those memories came back as I sat through Holiday Inn, Broadway’s latest, if dated, movie-musical adaptation. Billed as The New Irving Berlin Musical, it is based on the 1942 movie, which had already been updated on screen into White Christmas in 1954, which in turn was adapted into a Broadway musical a few seasons ago. Follow that? No matter; just know that “White Christmas” is sung in all four incarnations.

The plot is a variation on “let’s put on a show,” which harks even further back to Andy Hardy. Jim, one of the two men in a night-club trio, moves to a farm in Connecticut, leaving his former partner Ted in the now-duo act with Jim’s soon-to-be-former fiancée Lila. Turns out that the old Mason Family Farm is in foreclosure, which Jim learns as Linda Mason shows up to collect some bric-a-brac. (You’d think at the closing, but whatever.)

Let's put on a show! (Photos: Joan Marcus)

Let’s put on a show! (Photos: Joan Marcus)

How to save the farm…hmmm…well, seeing as Jim (Bryce Pinkham) is a singer and Ted (Corbin Bleu) is a dancer and Lila (Megan Sikora) does some of each, as does Linda (Lora Lee Gayer), they put on a show! Furthermore, since they and their show-biz pals are all laid off during major holidays, they only perform during Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter and Independence Day – ergo, Holiday Inn!

Corbin Bleu and Megan Sikora with "Plenty to Be thankful For"

Corbin Bleu and Megan Sikora with “Plenty to Be Thankful For”

That might be a cockamamie business plan, but it’s made to order for matching up settings, costumes and Irving Berlin selections with a calendar of holidays. For Thanksgiving we get pilgrims, turkeys and “Plenty to Be Thankful For,” for Easter it’s pastels, bonnets and “Easter Parade” and so on. (If you have to ask about Christmas, you haven’t been paying attention.)

h-inn-easter3Corbin Bleu, left, Lora Lee Gayer and Bryce Pinkham in “Easter Parade” finery

                          The show is mildly entertaining, in that it has its moments. The arrangements and the orchestra that plays ‘em are excellent and the ensemble “gypsies” make the most of Denis Jones’ standard choreography (a jump-rope number is nifty). Among the principals, the women fare best. Ms. Sikora, lithe and sultry, has too little to do (her appearances bookend the show), while Ms. Gayer could sing to me all day (“Nothing More to Say,” “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” etc). The crooner Pinkham and hoofer Bleu are pleasant enough; the fact that their predecessors were Crosby and Astaire gets them a pass. Lee Wilkof and Megan Lawrence offer competent comic relief as the act’s blustery manager and the farm’s brassy caretaker, respectively, and Morgan Gao excels as a precocious banker-in-training (he’s about 12).

With Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge’s old-hat script, and by-the-book direction by Mr. Greenberg, this Holiday Inn would appeal, I’ll bet, to those summer-stock audiences. But on The Great White Way – and at Broadway prices? Not so sure.

Through Jan. 15 at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54, 254 West 54th, NYC. Schedule and tickets ($47-$152): 212-719-1300 or online at www.roundabouttheatre.org  


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August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at Two River Theater: Stunning!

The Wikipedia entry for Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, known as the Mother of the Blues, lists her life span as April 1886 to December 1939. Based on Two River Theater’s stunning production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, tacking on a September 2016 resurrection would not be inappropriate. With an incredibly talented (more important, skilled) cast, impeccably directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the voice of one of America’s greatest playwrights has never rung with more passion or clarity. (Wilson died in 2005; another of the greats, Edward Albee, died on the day Ma Rainey opened at Two River.)

August Wilson’s ‘Century Cycle’ is composed of ten plays that explore the 20th Century African-American experience (coping mechanisms, if you will), decade-by-decade. The first to be staged on Broadway (in 1984), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the 1920s entry. It is vividly outspoken on the black-white racial divide of its time. Set in a Chicago recording studio, the play progresses from routine bantering among the band members, through Ma Rainey’s tempestuous arrival and performance, to a devastating conclusion.

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A ground-breaking Othello in “Red Velvet” at NJ Shakespeare and “Cheaper By the Dozen” down the shore

Have you ever seen Othello played by a Caucasian actor? I’ve seen Orson Welles’s and Laurence Olivier’s “blacked-up” film versions, and Pavarotti singing the Verdi operatic role at Carnegie Hall years ago, but never a white Moor on stage. (My first Othello was James Earl Jones in Central Park in 1964.)

Neither had I ever heard of American-born Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play the role on a London stage, until Red Velvet. Veteran British stage and screen actress Lolita Chakrabarti’s first-written play, on stage now at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, is about the hiring of Aldridge to replace Edmund Kean in the role after Kean had collapsed during a performance at Covent Garden in March 1833. (He died two months later.)

The ensuing reactions to Aldridge’s appearance among the production participants, the public and the critics (some of them vile), is a fascinating tale, made more so by the fact that it occurred three decades before our Emancipation Proclamation (although England officially abolished slavery that same year, 1833).

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“Iago” not the only villain at New Jersey Rep

Legend has it that when British producer-actor Sir Donald Wolfit toured as Othello, he was dismayed when Iago got all the notices. He replaced the actor with a less-talented fellow, who also dominated the reviews, and then with the assistant stage manager: no change. By the end of the tour, Wolfit himself was playing the crafty villain and basking in praise for his performance. He could take a hint, old Wolfit could. After all, bad guys tend to be more interesting than good guys; besides, Iago is the larger role (1098 lines to Othello’s 887).

James McLure, who died of cancer in 2011 at age 59, set his last-produced play against a misguided production of Shakespeare’s Othello. In an admired creative stroke, McLure titled his play Iago. Seeing the play at New Jersey Repertory Company, however, brings to mind the time-worn adage: Don’t judge a play by its title.

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