Stellar Cast in World Premiere of “Fern Hill” at NJ Rep

The six actors appearing at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch have amassed thirty-five Broadway credits among them, with six Tony Award nominations (and a win) to boot. Lured to the 75-seat venue by the prospect of creating roles in the world-premiere of a play by another lauded actor-playwright, the deluxe half-dozen are a formidable acting ensemble.

“Fern Hill” is Michael Tucker’s second full-length play to premiere at NJ Rep, after “The M Spot” in 2015. Not unlike the earlier play, “Fern Hill” explores emotional and physical (read: sexual) relationships, this time among three couples – not as in swingers, I hasten to add, but three pairs with their own histories and hang-ups.

Sunny (Jill Eikenberry) and Vincent (John Glover) [Photos: SuzAnne Barabas]

    The couples are gathered at Sunny (Jill Eikenberry) and Jerome’s (David Rasche) farmhouse, Fern Hill, to commemorate the men’s milestone birthdays: Vincent (John Glover) will soon be 80, Jerome, known as Jer (David Rasche), 70, and Billy (Tom McGowan), 60. Including Vincent’s wife Darla (Dee Hoty) and Billy’s wife Michiko (Jodi Long), all are engaged in the arts and academia: painters, teachers, a photographer, a Fine Arts administrator and, oh yes, Billy (“not a name for an adult person”) plays bass in a fading reunion road band.

Almost inadvertently, Sunny floats the idea of a communal living arrangement at Fern Hill (named after a Dylan Thomas poem), where the couples could all live and be there for one another as they age. “We all get along great,” someone says. “Precisely because,” says another, “we don’t live together.”

Three-quarters into the first act, one of the characters drops a bombshell concerning one of the others (no spoilers here), delivered as if an afterthought. To Tucker’s credit, the characters have been well enough established by then, for the revelation to become the centerpiece of the play. As it develops, all three marriages are affected.

From left: Jill Eikenberry as Sunny, Jodi Long (Michiko) and Dee Hoty (Darla)

Those marriages are diverse without being absurdly so. Vincent is significantly older than Darla, a point made with the birthday comments and, in case we were dozing, by his hip replacement surgery. Mr. Glover captures the insecurity within Vincent’s defensive curmudgeon, and Ms. Hoty’s Darla accepts, or at least is resigned to, the role of care-giver. I suspect that Darla’s decision to attend her gallery opening in Vienna pleases the women in the audience. (Mr. Tucker writes women very well. He neither objectifies them nor patronizes them by making them heroic.)

Hardly a conventional pair, Billy is a middle-aged rocker, and Michiko is the younger woman he met on tour. (Michiko’s Asian ethnicity is not a plot point.)  Billy’s constant wise-cracking, some funny enough, gets tiresome, but Mr. McGowan’s timing cannot be faulted, and the character is redeemed in the second act. (“You totally have the right to remain silent. Carmen Miranda.”  A killer line.) McGowan is also particularly moving when Billy stands silent during Michiko’s speech about an accommodation she needed from her husband. It is the play’s most tender moment, and Ms. Long expresses it perfectly.

Sunny is complex; she’s insecure, about her painting, yes, but also about her aging allure and about some qualities she has sublimated for years. She’s not helped by husband Jer, whose assumption of superiority prompts him even to correct a minor slip in her grammar. (He does this only once – in the play – but it is enough.)

David Rasch, left, as Jer and Tom McGowan (Billy)

The spouses circle around each other, none more realistically than Sunny and Jer (wince); as enacted by Ms. Eikenberry and Mr. Rasche, they reveal and withhold in equal measure until the group, er, communal therapy takes hold. Even then, it’s unclear where they’ll end up, which is fine; it is their business anyway, not ours.

Under Macedonia-born director Nadia Tass, whose career has flourished in Australia as well as in the US, the play takes on a sort of dual personality, with six characters morphing into three units and back again. The individuals are distinguishable, as are the couples. I doubt that’s by accident. (And as usual, designer Jessica Parks captures the essence of the piece. Several distinct playing areas on one unit set. Remarkable.)

“Fern Hill” is not overlong at just over two hours, including intermission, but some judicious pruning would put a tidy cap on it. We get, for example, that Billy is a gourmet cook before he details his elaborate clam sauce recipe, and there’s some relationship-info repetition. That noted, plays that pose questions are deeper than ones that purport to answer them; “Fern Hill” is the former.

Will the gang-of-six turn Fern Hill into a commune? Tucker’s play comes thisclose to answering that, but pulls back just in time. More interesting is the question the audience is prodded to consider:  How many and how much of your deepest personal secrets would you openly reveal in an effort to rescue a dear friend from a dire situation?  “I think when you hold secrets from a person you start not liking them very much,” says one character. “Fern Hill” is about opening up. To others, sure; but also to oneself.

Through September 9 at New Jersey Rep, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Performances Thurs & Fri at 8PM; Sat at 3 & 8PM; Sun at 2PM. For info and tickets ($50): 732-229-3166 or online at www.njrep.org

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Shaking up Shakespeare in Central Park – and Shaw in Ontario wine country

There is so much about the The Public Works Shakespeare in the Park’s musical adaptation of “Twelfth Night” to praise, it’s hard to know where to begin. Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub’s conception honors Shakespeare’s tone and language even as it updates them with devilish dexterity, and Taub’s music and lyrics are as jaunty as is the play itself. The spot-on cast is clearly having fun with the innovations without poking fun, and the inclusion of 50 residents in each of two rotating casts, representing every borough, is a fitting tribute to Public founder Joseph Papp’s vision. (Years ago, a few days after I got out of the Army, Joe hired me to tech on “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Richard II” in the park, then at Wollman Rink…my first NYC theater job.)

Sir Toby (Shuler Hensley) and Feste (Shaina Taub) conferring while the Illyrians have free drinks on Rachel Hauck’s multi-level set [Photos: Joan Marcus]

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High body-count in “Titus Andronicus” at Shakespeare of New Jersey

More people are killed in Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” than in his Scottish play and Danish plays combined. “Titus” also preceded “Sweeney Todd” in the bad-guy-pie department by four centuries.

Shakespeare’s first-written tragedy is a gory affair that leaves little to the imagination. The play is among his least-produced, due partly to the unrelenting carnage, which has even led some scholars to question Shakespeare’s authorship, but it is his, alright. In fact, the “revenge tragedy” became an immediate hit from its first-recorded performance in 1594. (Some tastes never change.)

Run-of-the-mill murder, for political ambition, say, or assassination, is the least of “Titus.” While the play does delve into military and political scheming and corruption, it is the wantonness of the violence that grips audiences. Some productions finesse it; at a  university some years ago, each incident was mimed in slo-mo. At the Public in 2011, ketchup or some other red juice flowed freely. And I can report that no marionettes’ strings were severed during the Puppet Shakespeare Players 2014 off=Broadway “Titus.”

The mayhem starts early. Bruce Comer, front, as Titus Andronicus

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Oldies but goodies: “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” at Irish Rep and “Anything Goes” in Westchester

The phrase ‘less is more’ is never more apt than when applied to Irish Repertory Theatre’s musical productions. Artistic director Charlotte Moore’s thirty-year old company, devoted to exploring Irish-American experience through works of theater, music and dance,  has a knowing knack for mining dated musicals for whatever magic lurks within them. For two recent examples, “Finian’s Rainbow,” in 2016, and “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” running now through September 6, magic is the key word, as much for their fantastical premises, as for the richness of their scores.

Burton Lane (music) and E. Y. Harburg’s (lyrics) 1947 “Finian’s Rainbow,” which features a love-struck leprechaun and crocks of gold at rainbow’s end, introduced “Old Devil Moon,” “If This Isn’t Love” and “How Are Things in Glocca Morra.” Eighteen years later, composer Lane teamed up with another lyricist, Alan Jay Lerner, to create an equally memorable score for “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” including “She Wasn’t You,” “What Did I have that I don’t Have?,” “Come Back to Me” and the glorious “On a Clear Day” (famously covered by Robert Goulet). Besides Ms. Moore’s streamlined adaptations (of the cluttered plots) and her smooth direction, both shows owe much of their glow to the selection of Melissa Errico to head the pared-down – but entirely winning – casts.

Daisy Gamble (Melissa Errico) among friends [Photos: Carol Rosegg]

The inspiration for “On a Clear Day…” was actually Lerner’s fascination with the phenomenon of extra sensory perception (ESP). In the musical (the first with a top ticket price of $11.90), Daisy Gamble (Ms. Errico), under hypnosis to quit smoking, recalls a past life as Melinda Wells (ditto) in 18th Century London. The hypnotist, Dr. Mark Bruckner (Stephen Bogardus), becomes infatuated with Melinda, who emerges as a rival to Daisy, who also sees into the future and can make contact at a distance, which comes in handy when Dr. Mark sings “Come Back to Me” after she had run away. (It may sound complicated, but compared to the 2011 Broadway revival where they gender-switched Daisy into male David, with the female Melinda still his alter ego, this one’s clear as a crystal ball.)

Dr. Bruckner (Stephen Bogardus) and Daisy

Ms. Errico is possessed of a rare magnetism that draws one’s attention to her every movement and expression, a quality on vivid display in Irish Rep’s intimate space. And she sings like a dream, with “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here,” sung to flowers that grow on Daisy’s command, and, later, Daisy’s lament “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?” As Melinda, she sings “He Wasn’t You” with John Cudia, very imposing in 18th Century mufti as Melinda’s caddish husband. (“He was so unfaithful that I became a novelty.”)

Eighteenth-Century mode: Edward Moncrief (John Cudia) and Melinda Wells (Ms. Errico)

The rest of the eleven-member cast (B’way used 19) fills various roles effectively and aces the lilting harmonies. The major portion of the overture is the chorale singing of the title song, presented here from a catwalk overlooking the audience. Under John Bell’s musical direction, it sets the tone for the delights that follow, and conductor Gary Adler’s compact orchestra, which, blessedly, includes a harpist and a cellist, is ideal accompaniment.

James Morgan’s scenic design and his projections brighten up the proceeds, as does Mary Jo Dondlinger’s lighting. One quibble: In what I guess is a considered decision, Daisy and Mark wear the same costumes throughout. Melinda dons a full cape and a hat, but since the play makes a point of spanning two weeks, you’d think Daisy would have changed her dress. In whatever she wears, though, Melissa Errico is a delight, ensuring that one leaves Irish Rep on a musical-theater high.

Through Sept 6 at Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St., NYC. Performances Wed. and Sat at 3PM and 8PM; Thurs at 7; Fri at 8; Sun at 3PM. For tickets ($50 – $70): 212=727-2737 or online at www.irishrep.com 

[Composer Burton Lane is credited with having discovered 13-year old Frances Gumm in 1935. After hearing her sing “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” at a Hollywood movie-and-stage-show theater, he brought her to the attention of bigwigs at MGM, where a few years later, re-named for all time, she was skipping along the Yellow Brick Road.]

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Another Oldie-but-Goodie an hour from Midtown…

Elmsford, New York, bordering Tarrytown, is the home of Westchester Broadway Theatre, a professional (Actors Equity) company that stages a wide variety of shows from the American Musical Theatre catalog. Recent productions of “Annie Get Your Gun” from 1946 and “A Chorus Line” (’75) have been outstanding; currently, WBT is turning back the clock to 1934 with a high-spirited production of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.”

Set aboard a luxury liner on a trans-Atlantic voyage, the story-line, equal parts romance and comedy, is just an appetizer to the main course, Porter’s music and lyrics: “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Easy to Love,” “It’s Delovely” and the rousing title song. And that’s just the first act!

The cast of WBT’s “Anything Goes” [Photo: John Vecchiolla]

          And speaking of appys and main courses, WBT puts the good name back into Dinner (or Lunch) Theatre, with an evening menu that includes Filet of Sole w/ Crabmeat Stuffing, Prime Rib, and more, including two different chicken entrees, neither of which brings to mind the well-worn dinner theater cliché. All served with salad, breads, fancy dessert and tea/coffee. There’s also a full bar for those who might want to sip a Chardonnay during “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” and “All Through the Night” – in act two!

“Anything Goes” runs through September 9, followed by the Maury Yeston/Arthur Kopit “Phantom,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and “Newsies” into 2019. Westchester Broadway Theatre, 1 Broadway Plaza, Elmsford, NY. For lunch/dinner show schedules, directions and all-inclusive pricing: 914-592-2222 or online at www.broadwaytheatre.com   

 

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway, Professional, Regional

The Stratford Festival: Shakespeare and More

Theater-goers who venture to Stratford, Ontario for the Shakespeare might want to check out the “supporting” plays and musicals as well. While both “The Tempest” and “The Comedy of Errors” bear witness to Stratford’s commitment to the Bard, several other plays, written and set in the 20th Century, are also worthy.

“The Tempest,” Shakespeare’s last solo-written play, is enhanced by magical stage effects, and “Comedy of Errors,” Shakespeare’s first-written comedy, is as knockabout funny as it should be. Both are marked by creative casting.

Prospero (Martha Henry) blessing the union of her daughter Miranda (Mamie Zwettler) and Ferdinand (Sebastien Heins) [Photos courtesy of Stratford Festival]

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“Half Time” hip-hop at Paper Mill Playhouse: Never Fresher

You’ll know how “Half Time” ends about five minutes in. So what; getting there is the fun part. And “Half Time” is fun. Its premise is simple enough (even to a fault, but anyway): a fictional New Jersey NBA team, the Cougars, is auditioning for a senior-citizen cheerleading squad. The catch, besides the minimum-age-60 requirement, is that their cheerleader routines will be performed to hip-hop rap accompaniment, movements and all.

Sounds far-fetched, right? But hold on; the musical, at Paper Mill Playhouse through July 1, was inspired by Dori Berinstein’s documentary “Gotta Dance,” about auditions in 2006 for the New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets first-ever senior NBA hip-hop squad. Twelve women and one man actually became The NETSationals. If that baker’s dozen had included the equals of Georgia Engel, Lilias White, Donna McKechnie and André De Shields, the Nets might have been gone to the NBA Finals.

The “Half Time” Hip-Hop Cheerleaders

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