A sure bet: “Guys and Dolls” in Deal, New Jersey

The overture to “Guys and Dolls” is unique in that it is scripted as well as orchestrated. It is a street scene collage danced – acted-out really – by the ensemble: floozies, society dames, bobby-soxers, a cop-and-pickpocket duo, a drunk and assorted tourists and hangers-on. If you couldn’t visualize Damon Runyon’s 1940s Times Square going in, ten minutes later you can.

The expansion and musicalization of Runyon’s short story “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” resulted in “Guys and Dolls,” as close to musical-theater perfection as any show before or since. If you have never seen it, or not in a long while, you may want to log off here now and secure a ticket to one of the remaining performances at the Axelrod PAC in Deal, New Jersey. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

Outside the Save a Soul Mission [Photos: Rich Kowalski]

Now then, while there is a local flavor to the production, Axelrod’s twenty-member cast is headed by several bona fide pros (under Equity Guest Artist contracts), with some impressive credits. The others range from semi-pro to recent college graduates, with varying levels of experience. Under Lisa Stevens’s cohesive direction and choreography, however, every one of them is at the top of their considerable talents. That may be partly due to the iconic show itself, which brings out the best in performers, but this group, including musical director Ethan Andersen’s terrific eight-piece on-stage orchestra, is as fine-tuned a unit as I’ve seen in a New Jersey venue.

Sarah Brown (Evan Bertram) and Sky Masterson (Stephen Mark Lukas)

On a bet, high roller Sky Masterson entices Save-a-Soul Mission doll Sarah Brown to accompany him to Havana. Their story intertwines with that of Nathan Detroit, proprietor of “the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York,” and cabaret singer Miss Adelaide, the well-known fiancée – Nathan’s, that is…for fourteen years!

The Hot Box Dolls: “A Bushel and a Peck”

The story, at once comedic and romantic, was framed by radio and TV comedy writer Abe Burrows in Runyon-esque vernacular, involving  limited contractions (I am for I’m) and use of the “historical present,” where something is stated in the present tense but you know it refers to the past. (I am sitting there when I realize how much I am enjoying the show.) Burrows’s first stage effort, the book complements Frank Loesser’s music and lyrics to a tee. And vice versa; the songs are extensions of the characters. Sarah Brown’s “I’ll Know,” for example, could as well be spoken, although that would deprive us of the pleasure of hearing Evan Bertram sing it. Her tones are crystalline, with a slight vibrato that evokes a stringed instrument. Changing tempo and mood, Bertram’s “If I Were a Bell,” about Sarah being in a happy place, put me in one as well.

Sarah Brown and Sky Masterson happy in Havana

Ideally, Sky Masterson should be tall, handsome and self-assured. Enter Stephen Mark Lukas, who is those qualities as well as a singer as comfortable with Sky’s half of “I’ll Know” as with “Luck Be a Lady” and his seamless segue from “My Time of Day” into “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” a soaring duet with Bertram.

Also out of Central Casting are Jared Gertner and Jenny Hill as Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide, carrying the bulk of the show’s comic load and belting out their numbers like the Broadway vets they are. (“Book of Mormon” is Jared’s most recent; “Spamalot” is Jenny’s.)  Hill’s “Adelaide’s Lament” (‘a person could develop a cold’) is a winner, and she’s the ideal doll to front the alluring Hot Box Girls on “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Take Back Your Mink.” She and Gertner ace “Sue Me,” and the Adelaide/Sarah duet “Marry the Man Today” is a highlight.

Nathan Detroit (Jared Gertner) and Miss Adelaide (Jenny Hill)

Among the capable supporting cast, retired public school teacher Mark Megill sings Arvide Abernathy’s “More I Cannot Wish You” as warmly as I’ve ever heard it and Brendan Doyle does a bang-up job with Nicely-Nicely Johnson’s “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” And you do not want to tangle with Ryan Widd’s menacing Big Jule from Chicago (although Sky clocks him good).

The crap game guys: “Luck Be a Lady” ballet

There’s all that – and more – to enjoy in this consistently entertaining production: classy ensemble numbers, guys cracking wise, dolls doing a PG-13 strip tease, and an update on the Biblical source of  “There is no peace unto the wicked.” Obediah knows his Bible. Mine includes chapter and verse on American Musical Theatre. This “Guys and Dolls” might convert you as well.

Through November 17 at Axelrod Performing Arts Center, 100 Grant Avenue, Deal, NJ. Thurs at 1pm and 7pm; Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 3pm.  Tickets ($58 – $64; $50/$56 seniors): 732-531-9106 Ext 14 or online at www.axelrodartscenter.com

My “Guys and Dolls”memories include seeing the original production (after which my sister’s boyfriend taught me to shoot craps – at age ten); a revival in the 1960s with Jerry Orbach and Alan King as Sky and Nathan (and Jake LaMotta as Big Jule); an all-black cast in 1976 with Robert Guillaume as Nathan; a few Regional productions; and, memorably, the superb 1992 Broadway revival in which Nathan Lane re-defined Nathan Detroit – and why not? Lane had taken the name Nathan years before as homage to the character. In 1955, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz hired a real-life Sky Masterson for the movie and, inexplicably, cast him, Frank Sinatra, as Nathan Detroit,

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“Cyrano” gets a couple make-overs (including nose jobs)

Two recent adaptations of Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac,” both titled simply “Cyrano,” play fast and loose with the 19th-Century French playwright’s masterpiece. At Two River Theater Company in New Jersey last month, the play, stripped of its revered open-verse construction and poetic imagery, was a bore. Jason O’Connell, who co-wrote the loose adaptation (with Brenda Withers), played Cyrano as a modern-day slacker with little regard for the language (or for projecting it). Among decent supporting performances – Luis Quintero’s clueless Christian was top-notch – O’Connell went his own partially-muffled way, apparently unchecked by director Meredith McDonough, and, but for a barely perceptible blotch, with a nose much like yours and mine.

The New Group’s version, running off-Broadway through December 13, while flawed, fares better.  New Group’s “Cyrano,” adapted and directed (and also prosed-up) by Erica Schmidt, whose schoolgirl-centric “Mac Beth” was astounding, arrived amid high expectations. Incorporating musical passages by the composer and lyricists for the Grammy Award-winning rock band The National, the title role is played by Peter Dinklage. Notwithstanding those impressive credentials, the whole emerges as less than the sum of its parts.

Cyrano (Peter Dinklage, right) to Montfleury (Scott Strangland): “Get off the stage. NOW!” [Photos: Monique Carlini]

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Blog, Featured, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Revenge is a dish best served cold? Not so in “Lily”

Two things to know about “Lily,” the world-premiere play at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. First, Christopher Daftsios’s play is constructed like an orderly three-part farce, with a situational setup, followed by a discussion about how to set things right, and finally an attempt at resolution during which nothing goes as planned. The second thing to know is that “Lily” is not a farce. Far from it. It is a serious play about unsavory characters reacting to a repellent occurrence.

Which sounds worse than it is – for a play, I mean. While no one depicted is a nice person (despite the playwright’s efforts), and the act that propels the play is indefensible, “Lily” manages to command attention for a couple hours. Intermission walkouts are unlikely.

The big reveal comes early in the play, and it is not my intention to tease, but custom dictates non-disclosure here. Suffice it to say that one character’s routine behavior is derailed.

Toby (Christopher Daftsios) welcomes Haley (Joy Donze) to his dressing room [Photos: Andrea Phox]

Country-western star Toby, acted by playwright Daftsios, is accustomed to welcoming a fan to his dressing room after performances. His ‘guest’ is always a compliant young female, culled from the herd by his body man Tommy, played by erstwhile NJ Rep assistant stage manager Adam von Pier.

This time it is Haley (Joy Donze), who tipped Tommy a C-note to ensure being picked on this, her 18th birthday (there’s that, at least). After some will-she/won’t-she palaver, the purpose of her visit is revealed through deed and discussion.

In summary, Toby’s past has caught up with him. It is a past rife with debauchery, facilitated by those around him, including his manager Sam (Tait Ruppert), whose cover-ups have smoothed Toby’s path. Until now.

Christopher Daftsios, left, Adam von Pier, Tait Ruppert

The acting is uneven. Daftsios is a speed-talker, difficult enough to decipher even in an intimate auditorium and not helped by Toby’s country-western drawl. von Pier’s Tommy is laid-back to a fault, quiet and acquiescent even when a hint of menace is indicated. And while the playwright would soften his image by having him sing opera and spare the more innocent women from willful assault, give me a break; he’s still Toby’s butt-boy. Sam is an unrepentant louse, and Ruppert plays him just so.

Haley is far from the play’s good guy; there isn’t one, despite Daftsios’s implied justification for her actions. But Donze finds some variety in her character – colors, in the vernacular. She handles Haley’s explanatory monologue near the end very well, creating empathy for the girl.

Haley might have worn out her welcome

Director Sarah Norris’s physical staging is well adapted to NJ Rep’s relatively small stage (on another of designer Jessica Parks’s fine sets), but she might have taken some pains to blend the performances into a complementary style.

What happened with Toby years before and the repercussions now are just plausible enough to form the groundwork for Daftsios’s dramatic fiction. How the situation is handled as it progresses, however, is a stretch. Sam’s overly simple solution is rejected amidst revelations of Haley’s lurid past (some made-up for effect), and that of her alcohol-addled mother (the titled Lily) and grandmother, as the play proceeds to an ending that leaves things hanging. Haley gets what she wants, I guess, but the question remains: is it worth what she does to get it?

Through Nov. 24 at New Jersey Rep, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Thurs. & Fri. at 8pm; Sat. at 3 and 8; Sun. at 2pm. Information and tickets ($50): 732-229-3166 or online at www.njrep.org                  

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Tennessee Williams’s Love-Play: “The Rose Tattoo”

 It is generally conceded that “Period of Adjustment” is Tennessee Williams’s only full-out comedy, but “The Rose Tattoo” could claim a close second, especially as the second half plays out in the highly entertaining Roundabout Theatre Company revival.  The laughs are of a different sort; we come dangerously close to laughing at the characters, but as played by Marisa Tomei and her ideal castmates, these folks are endearing – extreme in behavior, yes, but hardly objects of ridicule.

Set in a Sicilian-American enclave “somewhere along the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Mobile,” Serafina Delle Rose (Tomei) awaits her husband’s return from his banana-truck route. Their finances are linked to the cargo stashed under the bananas; their personal bliss, at least hers, to their lusty amorous activity, which ends when Rosario is killed in a roadway crash (caused, in the original, by the police shooting at the truck).

Serafina (Marisa Tomei) pre-Magiacavallo [Photos: Joan Marcus]

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

“An American in Paris” Touches Down in Westchester County

How long after seeing some musicals does it take to get a song out of your head? I’m stuck with “NYC” a full week after every “Annie,” and “Goodbye to blueberry pie” after “Gypsy.”

Isolating any one number from the abundance of riches embedded in “An American in Paris” is a fool’s errand because, you see, all sixteen of its songs were written by George and Ira Gershwin.

Originally a symphony (by George) sans lyrics that the New York Philharmonic premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1928, “An American in Paris” was filmed in 1951 (Gene Kelly/Leslie Caron), featuring lyrics set to the symphony by brother Ira. George had died 15 years before, but a more vibrant, living collaboration does not exist. (George Gershwin died at age 39. Just imagine if…well, never mind.)

The multi award-winning stage adaptation, with a revised libretto by Craig Lucas, ran for 18months on Broadway in 2015-16, and an ambitious and thoroughly delightful revival is running now through November 24 at Westchester Broadway Theatre  in Elmsford NY.

The Paris Ballet [Photos: John Vecchiolla]

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Memorable “Memoirs of a Forgotten Man” in New Jersey

You needn’t be familiar with 20th Century Russian – Soviet Union, that is – history in order to appreciate D. W. Gregory’s “Memoirs of a Forgotten Man.”  While a sense of that history will enhance the experience, “Forgotten Man” stands on its own as a gripping mystery-drama, premiering now through September 15 at New Jersey Repertory Company.

As a National Rolling Premiere, “Forgotten Man” also debuts this summer at theaters in West Virginia and upstate New York, but it is hard to imagine it any better than at NJ Rep, where, directed by James Glossman and realized by four fine actors, it is an engrossing two hours (including intermission).

The play takes place in separate locations and decades: Moscow in 1957 is the play’s present, with flashbacks to Leningrad in 1937. The dates evoke Joseph Stalin’s brutal tenure as General Secretary and Premiere of the Soviet Union (1930s-40s) and later, the repressive regime that assumed power after Stalin’s death in 1953. (Flashbacks-within-flashbacks can be confusing, but 1957 and ’37 are clearly delineated.)

A Soviet journalist with the gift of total recall is the subject of a study being presented to a government censor for approval. Alexie (Benjamin Satchel) is blessed (or cursed) with perfect, instant memory. Glancing briefly at a list of fifty random numbers, for instance, he can immediately rattle them off without hesitation. Backwards, too, if you please.

Alexie is the object of Natalya (Amie Bermowitz)’s research, completed 20 years earlier and just now submitted to government functionary Kreplev (Steve Brady) for review. Ostensibly scanning the dissertation for anti-Soviet sentiments (by analyst or subject), Kreplev has his own guarded personal agenda.

Amie Bermowitz and Steve Brady (as Kreplev) [Photos: Andrea Phox]

Alexie has his own way of perceiving things, ascribing colors and tastes to words and attitudes. Crossing the street, “…honking horns smelled like fried onions and every horn…a different color.” Strange – amusing even – as that sounds, Alexie’s recollection that a speech by Bolshevik revolutionary Nikolai Bukharin “gave off the smell of turpentine” is intuitive. (A victim of Stalin’s “Great Purge,” Bukharin was executed in 1938.)

As Kreplev’s probe deepens, portions of Natalya’s interaction with Alexie are acted out, with Kreplev as observer. It is an effective device. Kreplev is a wily interrogator, a quality that Brady captures in both subtle and obvious tones and mannerisms. He also doubles as Alexie’s brother Vasily in the earlier scenes, demonstrating how just putting on a cap can switch personas.

As adept as Brady’s Kreplev is at drawing out Natalya’s motives and hidden past (one brief exchange speaks volumes), Bermowitz matches him in Natalya’s reluctance to be forthcoming and her anxiety over the reception of her report. As temperate and understanding as Natalya is with her subject, Bermowitz changes gears effectively, doubling as Alexie’s family’s devious neighbor.

Andrea Gallo does more than fill in gaps in several roles, all fully realized. She’s Alexie’s politically unaware mother, his childhood teacher and, in a remarkable transition, his stogie-chomping editor. She – and a few remarks by Alexie – account for the play’s scant humor.

From left: Steve Brady (as Vasily), Benjamin Satchel, Andrea Gallo, Amie Bermowitz, rear

In a couple scenes, Alexie speed-talks his way through long lists of unrelated words and numbers. The actor has memorized and rehearsed, of course, but damned if it isn’t amazing anyway. Satchel finds degrees of warmth and humanity in what could be a robotic character.

Likewise, there is much more to directing than moving actors around, but with so many specific settings depicted on NJ Rep’s small, sparsely furnished stage (I counted at least six), establishing locales from scene to scene is not a gimme. Glossman does that, as well as guiding his cast into authentic relationships. (The Alexie/Natalya connection, straddling the boundary between academic and personal, is particularly well acted and directed.)

“You think of memory as a camera,” explains Natalya. “It’s not a camera. The mind doesn’t take pictures, it leaves impressions. And over time the impressions change.” But not for Alexie. He cannot let go even of the things that don’t matter. “Once it’s in there, it stays,” he says pointing to his head. Is there a limit to his brain’s storage capacity? And if so, can one learn how to forget in order to make room for new memories? Is Alexie a potential danger to an oppressive political regime? A threat to other people’s more orderly sense of recall? Or is he just an oddity in a traveling carnival show? “Memoirs of a Forgotten Man” poses questions. Theatergoers are welcome to provide their own answers.

Through September 15 at NJ Rep, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Thurs & Fri at 8pm; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2pm.For tickets ($50): 732-229-3166 or at www.njrep.org 

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