“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]

With a cast of 25 actor/singer/dancers and an eleven-piece orchestra (large for Regional venues), the emphasis at WBT is on the Gershwin brothers’ score. With such as “I Got Rhythm,” “S’Wonderful” and “Shall We Dance,” as well as less familiar numbers (“Beginner’s Luck,” for one), who could ask for anything more?

There is more, of course: a romantic plot line that is predictable and a bit creaky, but which also includes sobering references to the Nazi occupation of Paris during the recently concluded war. American artist Jerry Mulligan (not that one, and played here by Brandon Haagenson), seeking inspiration in Paris, meets two women: lithe and lovely dancer Lise (Deanna Doyle, ideally cast) and wealthy ‘benefactress’ Milo (Lauren Sprague, imbuing the ice queen with a hint of warmth).

Deanna Doyle aloft via Brandon Haagenson

Lise is betrothed to Henri (Jonathan Young), her wartime protector, and together with pianist/composer/narrator Adam (Tommaso Antico), the three men connect as friends, commiserate about romantic woes and collaborate on song-and-dance turns. By the time they trio on “S’Wonderful” and later “They Can’t That Away from Me,” they are your pals as well.

From left: Henri (Jonathan Young), Adam (Tommaso Antico), Jerry (Brandon Haagenson)

Ms. Doyle, reprising her Lise from the National Tour, is a joy – a saucer-eyed gamin projecting womanly stirrings in song (“The Man I Love”) and youthful innocence through dance. The “American in Paris” ballet, fully twelve minutes in length, is a showcase for Doyle, Haagenson, the talented ensemble, music director Ryan Edward Wise’s excellent musicians and for director and choreographer Richard Stafford.

Have I mentioned “But Not for Me,” “Who Cares” and the self-fulfilling ditty “Fidgety Feet”? As for my mental song loop, it was “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” presented as Henri’s music-hall fantasy. Backed by the ensemble in Keith Nelson’s snappy costumes, it is Young’s eleven o’clock number, which he deserves. After all, Henri doesn’t get the girl.

Through Nov. 24 at Westchester Broadway (Dinner) Theatre, Elmsford, NY. Performances Wed. thru Sun. at various times. For information and tickets: www.BroadwayTheatre.com (Prices include lunch or dinner from an extensive menu.)


Blog, Professional, Regional

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 

Blog, Professional, Regional

Into Each Life “The Rainmaker” Should Fall: N. Richard Nash’s Play in New Jersey

The theme of the mysterious stranger who arrives on the scene and changes people’s lives has long been a staple of American fiction, never more than it was in the 1950s. That decade produced Shane, who vanquished evil with gun-barrel justice; “Picnic”’s Hal Carter, who outed a few midwestern women’s libidos; and Harold Hill, the rascally Music Man. There was also the title character of N. Richard Nash’s “The Rainmaker,” Bill Starbuck, a con-man whose roguishness is transparent even to those who willingly fall for his pitch.

The 1954 play ran only 125 performances on Broadway, but it had a sturdy after-life on Regional and community stages. I saw it years ago with Farley Granger in the title role, and then a few other times, most recently the 1999 Broadway revival with Woody Harrelson. Seeing it again last week at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, where it runs through August 18, was like re-kindling an old friendship. The play is dated in time, place and style, but it holds up, especially when its time, place and style are honored, as here.

Set on a western ranch in “a time of drought,” the drought that plagues the Curry family is metaphor for their dried-up lives. The widowed patriarch H. C. oversees the family in name only. His inflexible elder son Noah tends the books and rules the roost, keeping a tight rein on his younger brother Jimmy. The three are focused on staving off spinsterhood for repressed daughter Lizzie by pairing her up with recalcitrant Deputy Sheriff File.

Starbuck (Anthony Marble), Lizzie Curry (Monette Magrath) and Jimmy (Isaac Hickox-Young)   [Photos: Joe Guerin]

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Organs, Oral and Orgasms, Oh My: “Get On Your Knees”

Let us clarify up front: the title of Jacqueline Novak’s 90-minute theater piece is not an invocation to prayer. Rather, it refers to a position oft identified with the performance of oral sex, a phrase Ms. Novak scorns in favor of the street term for the act. (Bear with me, folks.)

Pacing up, down and across the stage of the Cherry Lane Theatre in a gray tee shirt and black jeans, she describes that act and the associated organs frankly, including her own introduction to it. And while the presentation is tightly scripted, it comes across as a stream-of-consciousness rumination, with no details too graphic or intimate to share.

Jacqueline Novak [Photos: Monique Carboni]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Music Ten, Book Three: “I Spy a Spy” off-Broadway

The best element of the musical “I Spy a Spy,” running through September 21 at the Theatre at St. Clements, is its music. Sohee Youn’s diverse score is mostly easy-to-take rock and jazz, peppered with Latino, middle Eastern and Russian themes, befitting the ethnic makeup of the characters. And the four musicians who play it, anchored by musical director Dan Pardo’s own versatile keyboard, might constitute the best small pit band off Broadway.

Emma Degerstedt and Andrew Mayer in “I Spy a Spy” [Photos: Russ Rowland]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

The Stratford Festival: Geniuses at Work

The Stratford Festival in Ontario routinely employs the talents of two Theatre geniuses, separated in their endeavors by four centuries. The earlier is, of course, William Shakespeare, around whose plays the Festival was founded and continues to flourish, now in its 67th season. Over the years, I have seen three pairs of star-crossed lovers, two melancholy Danes, a pair of crook’d Kings (one female), multiples of the popular comedies, and Christopher Plummer as both Lear and Prospero.

The modern genius is director-choreographer Donna Feore, whose grasp of musical theatre and ability to communicate its wonders are boundless. Her “Crazy for You” in 2014 was spectacular and last season’s dance-centric “The Music Man” stands out in vivid memory. In 2016, with rarely-granted approval from the Michael Bennett estate, she re-staged “A Chorus Line” on the Festival’s expansive thrust stage with a thrilling result.

Recently I saw four of this season’s twelve productions, two by Shakespeare and two musicals staged by Ms. Feore. An abundance of riches.

No two of Shakespeare’s plays could be any more different than “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is from “Othello.” That one is a rollicking comedy and the other a dark tragedy is just the tip of the comparison.

Geraint Wyn Davies as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

In “Merry Wives,” two assertive married women turn the tables on Sir John Falstaff, their bungling would-be suitor, whose indignities and other comic capers lead to the play’s satisfying resolution.

In “Othello,” Iago, a villain for the ages, plots against trusting Othello, leaving both of their compliant wives slain, each by her own husband’s hand. At this play’s gut-wrenching resolution, my companion asked rhetorically, “How can these actors possibly do this again tomorrow?”

Othello (Michael Blake), left, and Iago (Gordon S. Miller)

Also distinguishing the two plays from one another is their contrasting forms. “Merry Wives” is 87 percent in prose (the most of all the plays) and 13 percent verse, while “Othello” is near the inverse at 19 percent prose, 81 verse. This factor by itself bespeaks the need for opposing acting styles. The Stratford company masters both. Their “Merry Wives,” driven by Geraint Wyn Davies’ superb Falstaff, moves along at a merry clip, its sharply comic dialogue enhanced with a dose of slapstick.  What makes the dual accomplishment even more remarkable is that fully sixteen actors appear in both plays, including, most notably, Michael Blake, who plays the jealousy-driven Othello and Mr. Page, the trusting of the two “Merry Wives” husbands. If you find two more contrasting Shakespearean roles, let me know. Blake plays them both to perfection.

The Merry Wives: Sophia Walker (left) as Mrs. Ford and Brigit Wilson as Mrs. Page.

Perhaps to avoid over-playing his sliminess, Gordon S. Miller’s Iago is a straightforward bad guy. The character has significantly more lines than Othello (1100 to 890), much of that difference directly to the audience. His letting us in on his nefarious intentions, usually with a friendly-confidante tone, can have you, perversely, on the verge of siding with him. Miller just tells us straight out, without the character’s quasi-erotic enjoyment of his evil doings. It is director Nigel Shawn Williams’s choice, I guess, but I missed the glint in Iago’s eye.

Michael Blake as Othello and Amelia Sargisson as Desdemona

What I did not miss is Desdemona’s usual complacency in the face of her husband’s intention to kill her. Played with emotional depth by Amelia Sargisson, this Desdemona fights like a hellcat, first verbally and then during Othello’s murderous attack, until, significantly bigger and stronger, he finally overpowers her. (There’s only so much you can change.)  It is a shattering enactment and the final scene that follows it, which can feel anti-climactic, is anything but.

None of the Shakespeare actors is in either “Little Shop of Horrors” or “Billy Elliot the Musical,” but if they were, they would probably excel in those contrasting musicals under Ms. Feore’s direction. Her “Little Shop” is an especially lively take on the show. The R & B girl-trio, for example, dances as well as sings their narrative segments, and the few mini-crowd scenes are spirited, but there’s a limit to what even she can do with the piece…an odd choice in the #MeToo era.

Audrey (Gabi Epstein) and Seymour (André Morin) with Audrey II as a toddler

Ostensibly about an insatiable person-eating plant gobbling up all of humanity (think unfettered Greed), the boy-friend-battered heroine Audrey getting nothing but platitudes from her male co-workers is cringeworthy. The abuser does become the plant’s first human meal (post-mortem), but its second course is the kindly florist, intentionally enticed into the plant’s orifice by shop assistant Seymour, whom the proprietor had adopted as his son.

Seymour with Audrey II, grown up (and hungry)

Then it is Audrey’s turn. Chewed upon but lingering, she offers herself up to Audrey II, as the plant is dubbed, to demonstrate her love for Seymour. I get that it’s an allegory, and audiences seem to enjoy it, but for me “Little Shop” is past its sell-by date.

“Billy Elliot the Musical,” on the other hand, is timely, emotionally resonant and exquisitely conceived. After an early number, I thought “It doesn’t get any better than this.” And then it did, in pulse-quickening dance sequences that include energetic tap, classic ballet and every style in between.

Nolen Dubuc (centre) as Billy Elliot with members of the company

In a rarely-achieved fusion, the numbers spring from seemingly incompatible themes: young Billy’s burgeoning interest in the ballet and the economic and political fallout from Britain’s 1984 coal miners’ strike. Against the background of the strike that crushed the British National Union of Mineworkers, Billy’s evolution-in-dance is an uplifting saga.

That the contrasting story lines mesh so well is a tribute to Lee Hall, who adapted his own screenplay (from the 2000 British film), and to Elton John’s exciting musical score. Under Ms. Feore’s direction and choreography, the whole of this “Billy Elliot” exceeds the sum of its parts.

Growing up in a single-dad household (mom had died), eleven-year old Billy stumbles into a young girls’ dance class after his boxing lesson.  Caught up among the girls’ awkward pliés and off-balance pirouettes, he catches the eye of Mrs. Wilkinson, the bored ballet teacher. Against the wishes – even the core values – of his father and brother, Billy continues in the class, eventually earning an audition for Britain’s prestigious Royal Ballet School.

You needn’t have seen the movie to predict the outcome, but getting there is a stirring dramatic and musical journey. Tears of compassion well up for the struggling miners and their families, while the exhilarating dance sequences are heaven-sent…joyous.

Three young dancers rotated in the title role on Broadway, where the show won ten Tony Awards including Best Musical, but it is impossible to imagine a better Billy than Nolen Dubuc, whose rapport with Ms. Feore is palpable. The lad acts the role impeccably and progresses from inept novice to accomplished dancer right before your eyes. There are also nine Ballet Girls, age about five to twelve, with nary an affectation among them. Mrs. Wilkinson is tough, sarcastic and very funny. Hard-bitten as she seems, she becomes something of a surrogate mother to Billy; Blythe Wilson is perfection in the role. (Billy’s real mum appears to him in several poignant scenes.)

Swan Lake fantasy: Billy (Nolen Dubuc) and Older Billy (Colton Curtis)

And, oh, the musical numbers: there’s the rousing “Solidarity, ” sung in counterpoint by the robust chorus of grim coppers and miners facing off with the brightly tutu’d Ballet Girls between them; “Expressing Yourself,” a nifty Music Hall song-and-dance of Pride between Billy and his chum Michael (Emerson Gamble) and an exquisite “Swan Lake” fantasy-danced by Billy with his older self (Colton Curtis). “Electricity,” Billy’s ‘eleven o’clock number,’ sets the Festival stage ablaze, and there’s more…much more.

Substituting our current political woes for the British coal miners’ despair and replacing Billy’s passion for the dance with whatever dreams or ambitions you harbor for yourself completes the metaphor.

How fortunate these performers are to be able to perform Donna Feore’s magnificent “Billy Elliot” again tomorrow.

The four shows reviewed here run through October. The season also includes Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII,” the classic comedies “The Front Page” and Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” and other offerings including family-friendly “The Neverending Story” and Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” For complete brochure: 800-567-1600 or visit www.stratfordfestival.ca

Blog, Canadian Theatre