“Annie” gets a makeover (with Andrea McArdle aboard)

With a few minor (and one not-so-minor) modifications, producers Andrew De Prisco and Jess Levy and director/choreographer Al Blackstone have given “Annie” a fresh appearance without sacrificing its Depression-era flavor or its sentiment. Fortunately, they haven’t monkeyed with the terrific (often under-rated) score, opting instead to emphasize how it is played, sung and moved to. The result is an altogether winning “Annie,” which ends its limited run on Sunday, November 18 at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal, NJ.

The ‘sentiment’ noted above refers to healthy, if simple, emotion (not icky sentimentality), and ‘moved to’ is apt because the smooth show feels choreographed throughout. It is still “Annie,” as good as any I’ve seen, among many, and better than most.

Andrea McArdle is Miss Hannigan [Photo: Rich Kowalski]

         Among its pleasures is the presence of the original Annie, Andrea McArdle, in the role of Miss Hannigan, the matron of the orphanage with a palpable dislike for her charges, especially a certain red-headed one. The years between Annie and Miss H have been more than kind to Ms. McArdle. The youngest-ever Leading Actress Tony nominee clearly relishes the switch from protagonist to antagonist, which she plays with tongue in cheek, glint in eye and pep in step. (“Little Girls” is a beaut!)

As Annie, Echo Diva Picone more than holds her own opposite the original. Her Annie is feisty, not pushy, and sweet, this side of sugary. Also a pitch-perfect singer, the Washington Township NJ elementary school student could well grow into her middle name.

“Tomorrow” (As if you couldn’t tell)

“Little Orphan Annie” began as a syndicated comic strip in 1924, based on an 1885 poem by James Whitcomb Riley. A few narrative books, several film adaptations and, of course, this musical, have kept the characters alive, so to speak, over the years. (The strip faded out in 2010.)  Annie’s curly carrot-top and Daddy Warbucks’ sleek chrome-dome are iconic images.

Well, guess what: neither of those images has made the leap (leapin’ lizards!) from comic strip to the Axelrod stage. Ms. Picone is a ginger alright, and a button-cute one, but this no-nonsense Annie wouldn’t be caught coming downstairs in a bright red fright-wig. (“What do you think this is, people?,” she’d say. “A comic strip?”) That omission alone humanizes the plucky kid. Framing the entire show as a story in a book being read by a young boy (Kristian Thaxton, excellent) also serves to downplay the cartoon factor.

Grace Farrell (Kate Marshall), Oliver Warbucks (Patrick Oliver Jones) and Mrs. Pugh (Caity Skalski) watching Annie (Echo Diva Picone) bust some moves

And think about it. Why should Warbucks still be an old guy? (And why bald, not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Years ago a relatively young business tycoon being a millionaire (portrayed as billion now) was unimaginable, but today? Such a man might look like Patrick Oliver Jones, who happens to be Axelrod’s 30-something and fully coiffed Oliver Warbucks. A sub-text suggests a romance between Warbucks and his assistant Grace Farrell. Played here by handsome Jones and lovely Kate Marshall, a wonderful Grace, it’s a match made in, well, in NYC…

…which brings us to composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Martin Charnin’s score. “NYC” gets stuck in my head every time, never more so than here. Absent the usual Broadway streetscape, the number is its own scenery. (The famous mid-number break by A Star to Be is a shining solo for Caity Skalski.)

Ms. Picone aces “Tomorrow,” with Sandy (Marti) at her side; Jones wrings the sincere out of “Something Was Missing,” and the hard-working adult ensemble gets the sarcastic “We’d Like To Thank You (Herbert Hoover)” just right.

“You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile”

The orphan ensemble, augmented from the mandated six (plus Annie) for “Hard Knock Life” and “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” are as spirited a group as ever pounced on those tunes. Their precision is a credit to musical director Andrew Sotomayor, whose ten-piece reed-and-horn-centric orchestra is on target throughout. (And, thankfully, no longer positioned on the audience-level floor.)

Are there more irresistible roles in all of musical comedy than Rooster Hannigan and Lily St. Regis? Or a spiffier show-tune than “Easy Street”? The only thing better than Andrew Hubacher and Lara Hayhurst playing those roles is that they get to do that song-and-dance trio number with Andrea McArdle. Worth the price, folks.

Lara Mayhurst, Andrew Hubacher and Andrea McArdle on “Easy Street”

Under Blackstone’s fluid direction, the scenes follow one another with minimal adjustments to Logan Greenwell’s spare-but-sufficient set, enhanced by Catherine Clark’s lighting design. Even the FDR scene, which can drag, moves apace, with Mark Megill evoking a kindly #32 without undue exaggeration. And a shout-out to Kevin Johnson, whose sound design avoids the over-amplification that has marred some shows in that venue.

“Why any kid would want to be an orphan, I’ll never know,” says Miss Hannigan. Well, how ‘bout to appear in “Annie” with you, Ms. McArdle.

Through November 18 at Axelrod Performing Arts Center, 100 Grant Avenue, Deal, NJ. Thurs-Sat at 8PM with matinees Sat at 2 and Sun at 3PM. For tickets ($43-$56): www.axelrodartscenter.com

 

The super six (alphabetical order): Hannah Cohen, Taylor N. Kaplan, Courtney F. Mormino, Alexa Nicole Origlio, Valentina Joy Reale and Lily Anna Schechter – facing dreaded Miss Hannigan!

[Pic: Love Imagry]

Blog, Professional, Regional

A solo show evokes Lenny Bruce: Comedian…and so much more

You are unlikely to ever see the theatrical title “I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Richard Pryor.” Or George Carlin. Or Chris Rock. Or Sarah Silverman. But appending the name Lenny Bruce is altogether appropriate. Not that he wasn’t a comedian, because he was, and a damn funny one. No, it is what he was in addition to being a comedian. What else he stood for and represented, without which, btw, none of those other names would be in the mix. Just ask them. (Carlin once told me he credited Lenny with inspiring his transition from the Hippy-Dippy Weatherman to “my true self, man.”)

Lenny Bruce was a champion of free speech and civil rights, including blanket acceptance of human differences. He abhorred the abridgement of any of those liberties and was especially disdainful of hypocrisy. To those ends, his routines ‘addressed social taboos and controversial topics, such as racism, sexism, politics, and religion’.*

Ronnie Marmo as Lenny Bruce [Photos: Doren Sorell Photography]

         While writer and performer Ronnie Marmo’s “I’m not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce” includes examples of Lenny’s comedic talents, about half of the 90-minute solo show at the Cutting Room on East 32nd Street is devoted to his defense of those other values and, after he was pilloried for his terminology, defense of himself. The autobiographical portions are in Bruce’s voice, which Marmo evokes without resorting to out-and-out imitation. (In Lenny’s trademark black suit, white shirt and black tie, he even looks a little like him, more so as the show goes along.)

I have only a dim memory of Julian Barry’s 1971 Broadway play “Lenny,” with Cliff Gorman, and I have not seen Bob Fosse’s 1974 movie adaptation, with Dustin Hoffman, in years. (The 2011 off-Broadway re-creation of Lenny’s groundbreaking 1961 Carnegie Hall concert is best forgotten.) My memory of having seen Lenny Bruce a dozen or more times in the late 1950s/early 60s remains vivid, and “I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce” is as close as you’ll get to the real thing.

With the approval of Lenny’s daughter Kitty Bruce, who, along with Marmo’s own company, Theatre 68, produced this show, much of the material is straight from Lenny’s recently re-issued autobiography, ”How to Talk Dirty & Influence People.”  Marmo, in fact, narrates the audio version. (The free sample on Amazon.com includes Lenny’s bit about “getting it,” as in “you’ll get it when your father comes home.” Marmo’s intonation is spot-on Lenny Bruce.)

To be sure, riffs on the N-word (also S and K) and a deconstruction of the F-word, all included here, still have the potential to offend, even in a progressive context. The difference is that there’s no phalanx of cops waiting for the infamous ten-letter intimacy phrase to drop so they can swoop down and cart him off to appear before a self-righteous magistrate with the power to strip him of his ability to make a living.

         Arguably, Lenny Bruce’s tragic flaw was his inability to cope with circumstances that were stacked against him and that eventually wore him down. He was a victim of a repressive system that he could not have known would crumble, in large part because of his defiance, which, ironically, destroyed him. Marmo portrays Lenny’s descent into drug addiction and general disrepair unsparingly; his opening and closing tableaux are devastating.

The director of a solo show is an off-stage co-star, a role that Joe Mantegna has obviously embraced here. He has Marmo using a full emotional range all across the wide stage. There’s nary a lull, although sprinkling in a few more snippets of Lenny’s really funny early bits would afford a welcome respite from the intensity of the later legal stand-off. With a fine set and especially effective lighting design by Matt Richter, and Hope Bello LaRoux’s evocative and pointed sound design, Cutting Room’s cabaret-style space is ideally suited to the show. (It is reminiscent of the Red Hill Inn in Pennsauken, NJ, where Lenny Bruce appeared in the late 1950s.)

The show is recommended for admirers of Lenny Bruce (or his legend), who already know what all the fuss was about. For those who don’t know, check into “I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce” and find out.

Through December 31 at the Cutting Room, 44 East 32nd Street, NYC. For show schedule and tickets ($50-$70, with $125 Champaign option): www.thecuttingroomny.com

*That starred sentence above, about “addresses social taboos and controversial topics such as racism, sexism, politics and religion” is a direct quote off a Wikipedia entry. Sarah Silverman’s.

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Elaine May astonishes in “The Waverly Gallery”

It is generally true that the decline into dementia is a gradual process. From early symptoms – forgetting names or dates or where one left the keys – to a failure to connect with the real world, can take years. In Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Waverly Gallery,” now on Broadway 18 years after its off-Broadway premiere, Elaine May enacts such a decline in just over two hours. It is an outstanding performance, mining the situation for its humor (without ridicule) and pathos (without bathos).

Elaine May as Gladys Green [Photos: Brigitte Lacombe]

         Heading a superlative cast that includes Tony Award-winners Joan Allen (for “Burn This”) and David Cromer (for directing “The Band’s Visit”), plus multi-film star Lucas Hedges in his Broadway debut and Lonergan-regular Michael Cera, Ms. May’s portrayal is astonishingly authentic.

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

Unresolved Mother-Son Issues: “Apologia” off-Broadway

Line readings are a generally under-valued (and under-credited) facet of the actor’s craft. As many times as you see “Hamlet,” for example, is how many different readings of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy you will encounter.

Having read Alexi Kaye Campbell’s “Apologia” before seeing the New York premiere (from London) at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, I was struck by how the play, interesting enough on the page, was enriched by Stockard Channing’s creative and sometimes counter-intuitive delivery of some lines. “She’s pretty,” Kristin (Channing) says to her son about his girlfriend, intoned in a way that negates any other qualities the young woman might possess. Later, “You’re pretty,” spoken directly to Trudi, is as warm as the other was cold.

Stockard Channing [Photos: Joan Marcus]

This is not to suggest that you should read “Apologia” (or any play) before seeing it, but just to note Channing’s uncanny ability to extract sub-text from the words on the page. She is a superb actor, proved once again in this play.

Peter (Hugh Dancy) and Trudi (Talene Monahon) show up at Peter’s mother’s English countryside cottage to celebrate mom’s birthday.  That they are early for dinner doesn’t much matter because the oven is on the blink. The chicken being raw doesn’t matter either, because Trudi is a vegetarian (“Pescetarian. I eat fish”), which is but one of her less-than-endearing characteristics that Peter had failed to mention, including that she’s American (ex-pat Kristin is an Anglophile) and that she and Peter had met at a Christian prayer meeting.

Talene Monahon and Hugh Dancy

Soon joined by second-son Simon’s girlfriend Claire (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Kristin’s protest-march cohort Hugh (John Tillinger), they go ‘round and ‘round on Kristin’s preoccupation with leftist causes (Karl Marx’s photo hangs in the loo) and the implications of the sons having been ‘abducted’ by their father while in elementary school. Consumed at the time (and still) with causes and protests, mom did not fight for custody. Nor, tellingly, is either son even mentioned in her just-published memoir. Mom’s explanation is that it is not a life-memoir, but rather a review of her career as an art historian, one of the rationalizations that informs Kristin’s apologia, which is the crux of the play.

[App-ah-LOW-djah: a defense or justification, usually written, of one’s actions or opinions.]

Kristin is a bottomless well of socially-conscious opinions, many of them Quixotic, all conveyed so convincingly in Ms. Channing’s commanding performance that you want to sign on. The woman who sacrificed traditional values for fiercely-held beliefs is now forced, however reluctantly, to question those choices. Kristin does not admit to doubts, but Channing’s layered performance reveals them below the surface of her apparent confidence.

Trudi is secure in her own beliefs and increasingly confident in sharing them. (Her ‘faith’ is essential, but thankfully there’s no preachiness.)  In her self-assurance, Trudi is nearly a match for Kristin; Ms. Monahon’s Trudi is much more than just pretty.

Peter’s banking career distresses his mother. Worse, he seems to be embracing born-again Christianity (“That’s one thing I thought I got right,” mom laments). Hugh Dancy, whose British stage and film credits are legion, imbues Peter with a complacent acceptance. He’s not over his childhood trauma, but he’s over letting it define him. In contrast, second-son Simon, also played by Dancy (no spoiler; it’s in the Playbill), is borderline catatonic. Showing up in the night with a physical injury that mom gently tends (Symbolism 101), his emotional wounds remain open.

Introduced as a soap opera actress, Claire promptly dispels that notion. “It’s more of a serialized drama that follows the trajectories of various people’s lives,” she clarifies. (Oh, pardon us.) It also pays well, judging by her elegant designer dress, which draws splashy attention. Ms. Echikunwoke (Showtime’s “House of Lies”) does more than justice to that dress – and to Claire’s affected poise.

From left: Megalyn Echikunwoke, John Tillinger, Talene Monahon, High Dancy, Stockard Channing

Hugh is playwright Campbell’s sarcastic-relief, a function squarely in actor Tillinger’s wheelhouse. His pointed comment as Claire exits may not be the play’s funniest, but it gets the biggest laugh. Director Daniel Aukin balances the work’s drama, humor and humanism at a satisfying pace.

Admittedly, plays about dysfunctional families, with a dinner-party-gone-wrong and servings of acerbic humor, have become an over-examined genre. What elevates “Apologia” above the fray is the presence of Stockard Channing at the head of the table. Also, where many modern plays rely on multiple mobile phone intrusions to move the plot, “Apologia” includes just one brief call. And it’s a doozy. (Do not set your iPhone down next to someone else’s identical model.)

Through December 16 at Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street NYC. For performance schedule and tickets ($99): 212-719-1300 or online at www.roundabouttheatre.org

[On the subject of line readings, here’s one to savor:  In “Romeo and Juliet,” Mercutio’s wry dying line “Look for me tomorrow and you will find me a grave man” is renowned for the cryptic word ‘grave’. At Stratford in 2017, actor Evan Buliung spoke it thus: “Look for me tomorrow and you will find me a grave, man.” Shakespeare’s words, but the actor’s comma.]

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Bernhardt/Hamlet/McTeer

In 2017, Elizabeth Marvel appeared as Marc Antony in the Free Shakespeare in Central Park “Julius Caesar.” In 2018 women are playing Caesar as well as Antony and Cassius at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, where, to boot, Martha Henry is Prospero. These and myriad other cross-gender castings no longer even raise an eyebrow.

In 1899, however, Sarah Bernhardt playing Hamlet was “grotesque…a disgusting idea,” as a contemporary theater critic declares in Theresa Rebeck’s fascinating new historical-fictional play “Bernhardt/Hamlet.” The Roundabout Theatre Company Broadway production stars Janet McTeer as the actress Oscar Wilde dubbed The Incomparable One, an appellation just as readily suited to Ms. McTeer.

A dressing room dinner party. From left, Dylan Baker, Jason Butler Harner, Janet McTeer, Matthew Saldivar [Photos: Joan Marcus]

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

“Phantom” in Westchester (not that one, the other one)

While some introductory background is a de facto requirement in a review of the “Phantom” musical that does not append “of the Opera” to its title, be advised upfront that the production at Westchester Broadway (Dinner) Theatre in Elmsford, NY is a top-notch staging of the one-word version of Gaston Leroux’s serialized 1910 novel.

Following their Tony Award-winning “Nine,” composer/lyricist Maury Yeston and librettist Arthur Kopit were working on a musical adaptation of Le Fantome de l’Opéra when news of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s impending version stalled the team’s financing efforts. Lloyd Webber’s, of course, opened on Broadway in 1988 and is still running. Yeston/Kopit’s lay dormant until 1991, when it was resurrected at Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars. With the rights to the Broadway version restricted (maybe forever), Y/K’s “Phantom” has become a staple in the Regional musical theater repertory. This is, in fact, Westchester’s fourth mounting since 1992 of what Maury Yeston calls “the greatest hit never to be produced on Broadway.” (The team’s “Nine” is also widely staged, as are some of Kopit’s award-winning plays. Yeston went on to compose “Grand Hotel” and “Titanic.”)

Comparisons of the two versions are inescapable. Both take liberties; Lloyd Webber’s skips over some incidents, while “Phantom” adds a major character to illuminate the Phantom’s back-story, humanizing him, which either adds to the romance and intrigue or detracts from the other-worldliness. Take your pick. Musically, both are pop-operatic, but where Lloyd Webber’s is sung-through, “Phantom” includes a significant amount of dialogue.  The comparisons are hardly relevant, however; lavishly staged and costumed and beautifully sung by its leads and ensemble, WBT’s ”Phantom” stands very well on its own 58 feet (21 cast members and eight musicians).

Christine (Kayleen Seidl)’s tabletop debut!   [Photos: John Vecchiolla]

Street-singer Christine Daeé (Kayleen Seidl) is discovered by Count de Chandon (Larry Luck). “All Paris should hear you sing,” he tells her, and it’s off to the Paris Opera House, where her debut is heard not only by the audience, but also by the disfigured, subterranean-dwelling Erik, aka The Phantom (Matthew Billman), who promptly falls in love with her – and her voice. Revealing himself to her, albeit masked, he becomes her vocal coach and, in his perverse way, her agent, securing roles for his protégé through threats and worse. “This Place is Mine,” sings the reigning diva Carlotta (amusing Sandy Rosenberg), but not for long. (You do not want Christine to be your understudy.)

Within the classic tale’s mystique, Seidl and Billman make the unlikely Beauty/Beast romance quite believable. And in this version it is indeed a romance. His feelings for her are obsessive and hers for him are apprehensive, but their mutual attraction cannot be denied. Seidl’s crystal-clear soprano and Billman’s rich baritone match up vocally as well. Her “Melodies de Paris” and “Christine Obligato” are lovely and his “Where in the World” and “Without Your Music” are commanding. Their duets blend beautifully; a series of “Lessons” is especially well sung (and staged), bordering on playful. (Notably, Billman conveys the Phantom’s emotions clearly, despite the three-quarter-cover face mask.)

Kayleen Seidle and Matthew Billman

The Phantom’s father, a significant figure in this version, is played by James Van Treuren, whose narration of “The Story of Erik” illuminates the Phantom’s origin as it is being enacted. An overly melodramatic tone weighs down the elongated concluding scenes, but the fault is in the play, not the players. Van Treuren and Ms. Rosenberg (Carlotta) are “Phantom” veterans, having appeared in WBT’s previous productions – Van Treuren in all three.

James Van Treuren and Matthew Billman

Director Tom Polum and music director Bob Bray are also returnees, a factor likely contributing to the seamless execution on stage and in the pit. The versatile ensemble, a major presence throughout, is excellent, and the ‘Musical Staging,’ which one assumes includes the ensemble’s singing scenes as well as the choreography, is smoothly coordinated by Erica Mansfield (Cassie in WBT’s outstanding “A Chorus Line” last January).

A scene from Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Paris Opera

‘Set Coordinators’ Steve Loftus and Carl Tallent share well-deserved credit for the large, circular platform that elevates from the stage floor to create the illusion of the Opera’s sub-basement. Andrew Gmoser’s lighting design adds the requisite eeriness to the proceedings, and Keith Nielsen’s costumes evoke the period.

So…while Yeston’s score may not be as memorable song-by-song as Lloyd Webber’s (partly because you’ve not heard it over and over), it is pleasing on its own, and Kopit’s book unveils (unmasks?) a more detailed story than the other. “Yes,” I hear you saying, “but is there a chandelier?” Indeed there is. Westchester features an elegant one – plus you get dinner.

Through Nov. 25 and again from Dec. 27- Jan 27 (“A Christmas Carol Musical” plays the interim month) at Westchester Broadway (Dinner) Theatre, 1 Broadway Plaza, Elmsford NY. For performance schedule, including luncheon matinees, and tickets ($59-$89): 914-592-2222 or online at www.broadwaytheatre.com    

The “Phantom” orchestra…because, why not?

Blog, Professional, Regional