“A Bronx Tale” Well Told at Axelrod PAC

“A Bronx Tale” cast members on Belmont Avenue  [Photos: Mark Krajnak]

The Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal Park, New Jersey has emerged from Covid lockdown with a stylish and engaging production of “A Bronx Tale,” the full-scale musical version of Chazz Palminteri’s 1989 autobiographical solo show. The 1993 (non-musical) film version starred the writer as neighborhood gangster Sonny, who took young Chazz under his wing, and Robert De Niro, who also directed, as Chazz’s working-class father. Palminteri revived his solo version on Broadway in 2007, and the musical, long in development, premiered at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 2016, before an extended Broadway run.

That was “A Bronx Tale” then. Axelrod’s, directed by Richard H. Blake, who originated the father on Broadway, is now. Palminteri’s streetwise dialogue is still way cool; the rangy show-music by Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast”) is catchy; and Glenn (“The Little Mermaid”) Slater’s lyrics serve the story well. Blake brings affection and insight from the Broadway run, and bolstered by professionals in a few roles, the large, variously experienced cast executes his direction and Abbey M. O’Brien’s spirited choreography with confidence. The show’s overall smoothness belies its “local” origin. It is first-rate entertainment.

Continue reading

Blog, Community, Professional, Regional

A Couple Thousand Miles (And a War) Between Friends: “Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise” in New Jersey

It is no knock on A. R. Gurney’s much-admired “Love Letters” to note that “Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise” takes Gurney’s premise and runs with it…literally. Gurney has a man and a woman seated at desks reading aloud the letters they wrote to each other over a fifty-five-year span. They remain seated throughout and do not interact or handle any props. (Gurney’s instructions are specific.)

“Jack…Louise” also consists of a couple reading letters they wrote to each other as well as some received (and other missives), and while Ludwig at first considered a seated-at-desk format, he opted instead for full staging, with physical movement, even though the two characters do not so much as look at each other [spoiler alert] until the very end. (Same with the Gurney.) Under David Saint’s appropriately free-form direction and performed with charm and nuance by Bill Army and Amelia Pedlow at George Street Playhouse, Jack and Louise emerge as warm, humorous and passionate individuals. Even though they remain separated (it bears repeating), they exude charisma – between each other and into the audience.

 

Jack (Bill Army) and Louise (Amelia Pedlow) [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

Not to belabor the comparison, but where Gurney’s characters and letters are pure fiction, Jack and Louise are based on Ludwig’s actual parents, whose letters, re-created here (originals were not kept), are the stuff of Ludwig family lore. Introduced at a distance by their fathers, their correspondence spans the WWII period from June 1, 1942, to VE Day, May 8, 1945. Louise, a Brooklyn native in her mid-twenties, is an aspiring dancer in NYC; Jack, an Army Captain from Coatesville, PA, was drafted right out of medical school, a tidbit he mentions only in passing. (“You’re a doctor? Don’t you know every girl in the world wants to go out with a doctor?”)

Their correspondence evolves from tentative revelations and mild flirtation to “full disclosure” (some of it awkward) and acknowledged affection. (Louise is first to sign off with “Love.” Ahhh…)

In designer James Youmans’s finely detailed separate areas, Jack’s barracks room and Louise’s bedroom, the two go about their mini-chores – folding clothes and such – while the other reads and reacts to the letters without, as Ludwig cautions, “pulling focus.” It is naturalistic acting at its non-pretentious best.

Over two hours (including intermission), Louise meets Jack’s family, including eleven judgmental aunts, falls out a window, is passed over at an audition, does a scene from “Arsenic and Old Lace” (her Cary Grant needs work), hits the road with “Hellzapoppin,” and volunteers at the Stage Door Canteen. Jack performs surgery (offstage), declaims some Winston Churchill, is shipped overseas, takes a bath in his helmet liner (also offstage…whew), goes MIA, and loses Louise’s phone number. (Don’t worry; it works out.)

Bill Army

Bill Army and Amelia Pedlow do not miss a beat. If there has been a better evocation of the 1940s in recent years, I missed it. Army’s army persona is spot-on. In regulation fatigues or military dress-up throughout, it all happens with his on-and-off military posture, his expressive face, and his resonant voice. (He proves hunky, too, in a shirtless flashing.)

Pedlow is a delight. Her emotional range, tested by the vagaries of Louise’s long-distance romance during a world war, is limitless, and effortlessly modeling designer Lisa Zinni’s  half-dozen period costumes (tap shorts, print dresses, more), Pedlow could well be a 1940s Vogue/Glamour cover girl.

Amelia Pedlow

The play is a departure for Ludwig, best-know for the nonpareil farce “Lend Me a Tenor.” A heartfelt, humor-infused tribute to his parents, “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” is a uniquely relatable romance. It is the perfect date-play, in the most positive intent of that phrase.

Among its admirable aspects is the under-the-radar ‘historical’ context. Jack’s warzone setting and Louise’s 1940s show-biz milieu are so well evoked in words and communicated in the acting that one feels, at more than a few moments, steeped in the period. Examples abound: “…I’m accomplishing something specific and useful,” Jack writes. “Some [patients] are so wounded, they can’t communicate at first. Some of them just don’t get better.”  And this from Louise: “Last week I saw ‘Oklahoma’ and it was so wonderful I nearly fainted.” And who knew that a dancer celebrating her first role in a Broadway road company in 1944 would run in circles shouting OH MY GOD over and over? (Some of Louise’s best lines are dated to perfection. One such gem is a toss-off about not liking the way Rosalind Russell dresses.)

Whether or not all the exchanges were Ken Ludwig’s parents’ exact words, he honors them by telling us they were. “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” is a splendid play.

Through Nov. 21 at George Street Playhouse, housed in New Brunswick, New Jersey’s elegant new Performing Arts Center. For Wed-Sun performance schedule and tickets ($25-$75): www.georgestreetplayhouse.org

Blog

Four Actors Play Multiple Characters in Two Broadway Plays

In his very fine book “A Lifetime with Shakespeare” (McFarland),  about having directed all of Shakespeare’s plays, the late Paul Barry postulated that casting is eighty-five percent of directing and that good directors, by definition, cast well. If that is so, “Lackawanna Blues” director Ruben Santiago-Hudson owes most of the brilliance of the play to his casting and to the acting of the play’s 25-plus roles. Each character of variety and nuance, to paraphrase  Pseudolus (“…Forum”), is played by an actor of such…well, let me put it this way: Santiago-Hudson plays every one of them. And, oh yes, he also wrote the piece.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson and guitarist Junior Mack [Photos: Marc J. Franklin]

While the play, named for the town in upstate New York where Santiago-Hudson grew up, is based on his early childhood (and later vignettes), it is less autobiographical than it is auto-observational. Or even straight biography, concentrating as it does on Ms. Rachel Crosby, the Lackawanna boarding-house proprietor known as “Nanny,” who raised the young Ruben.

Nanny is the leading character, but the supporting cast of misfits, hangers-on and other generally needy folk who show up at her boarding houses are as vivid a supporting cast as one could imagine. Among them are extended-family members from the south and other newcomers that Nanny would counsel and guide toward employment in the  1950s booming industrial economy. (Arrive on Monday, have a job by Wednesday.) Nanny was “like the government if it really worked.”

A fight between a man with a missing finger and one with an amputated leg was the “nine-finger/one-legged fight of the Century.” There is also a one-armed man, an abused wife who Nanny takes in, a fascinating riff by a former Negro League pitcher, and a well-traveled old man, given to uttering  malaprops, who was in awe of New York’s “Entire State Building.”

Accompanied onstage by the blues-inflected guitarist Junior Mack, Santiago-Hudson embodies all the characters unerringly, via distinct vocal tones and deft shifts in posture and demeanor – even in rapid conversation with one another. (Ruben also plays a mean harmonica.)

The solo “Lackawanna Blues” ran off-Broadway at the Public Theatre in 2001 and was later a multi-cast HBO film. However it fared in those settings, it is more than comfortable and is, in fact, comforting, on a Broadway stage, where Santiago-Hudson’s deep feelings for the people he brings to life bear out that love really is “a many blended thing.” That befuddled old man was onto something.

At Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, only through November 7. Information and tickets: ww.manhattantheatreclub.com 

# # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # # #

As much as “Lackawanna Blues” provides insight into the lives and experiences of certain African Americans over a certain limited time, “The Lehman Trilogy” does the same for certain Jewish immigrants to America over a longer period. The latter play is in fact a veritable history lesson, which is not to suggest it is academic, dry or even a tad boring. On the contrary, “The Lehman Trilogy” is as entertaining – enthralling even – as it is instructive, and vice versa.

“The Lehman Trilogy” has the feel of a long-established historical account, but having been inspired by the 2008 collapse of the Lehman Brothers financial dynasty, it is necessarily a recent creation. The play is adapted by British National Theatre associate director Ben Power from Richard Dixon’s 2019 translation of Italian writer Stefano Massini’s 2016 fact-based novel-in-verse. It originated at the National in London and ran at New York’s Park Avenue Armory in 2019 before moving to Broadway where it was an early-preview victim of the Covid shutdown. Now resumed at the Nederlander Theatre, “The Lehman Trilogy,” fluidly directed by Sam Mendes, is a monumental achievement…in content, execution, performance and, not least, in its three-plus hours (including two intermissions) that whizz by.

From left: Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale, Adrian Lester [Photo: Julieta Cervantes]

After a brief prologue, the story unfolds chronologically, beginning with Heyum Lehmann, Americanized to Henry Lehman (Simon Russell Beale), arriving at New York harbor from Bavaria (Germany) in 1844 at age 22 and soon establishing a sole-proprietor dry-goods store in Montgomery, Alabama. With the arrival of his brothers Mayer (Adam Godley) and Emmanuel (Adrian Lester), the store, re-named Lehman Brothers, expands from selling finished cotton goods to accepting raw cotton in payment and re-selling it in the north, effectively inventing the term “middlemen.” (There are nods to the slave-labor production of the cotton and a reference to it being a “crime,” but a deeper exploration would be, one must acknowledge, another play entirely.) Various endeavors follow, until, having morphed into a financial-services and investment company, they move to NYC and the rest, we’ll say, is history. They weather the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression and prosper through World War II manufacturing and post-war real estate investments, continuing on a roll until the 2008 bankruptcy of the by-then fourth largest financial institution in America.

A well-populated history it is. About the same number of characters as in “Lackawanna Blues,” twenty-five or so, are variously portrayed in “The Lehman Trilogy” by that three-brother trio of actors. Among the characters they inhabit with minimal costume change and maximal skill are the principals’ sons and grandsons; their clients, enablers, and deniers; even several women and wives. All played out on Es Devlin’s revolving-cubed set and with live-piano accents (Candida Caldicot), “The Lehman Trilogy” is a tour de force. Not just of acting (although surely that), but of live theater’s unique ability to not just show rather than tell, but to explore a stirring, wide-ranging, fascinating tale by…well, by showing.

Through January 2 only at the Nederlander Theatre,208 West41st Street. Schedule and ticket information: www; thelehmantrilogy.com

Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

The Dazzling Half-Dozen: “Six The Musical” on Broadway

Henry VIII wasted no time embarking on his multiple-marriage mission. Just weeks after assuming the English throne at age 19 in 1509, he wed number one of six, Catherine of Aragon, his older brother Arthur’s widow. (Catherine was the daughter of Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who had, in 1492, backed a certain Italian explorer to sail the ocean blue.) Henry eventually divorced Catherine to marry Anne Boleyn, who, failing to produce a male heir, was beheaded on a questionable charge of adultery.

Henry’s next wives were, in order: Jane Seymour, who died from childbirth-related causes; Anne of Cleves, who, after Henry rejected her over her appearance, accepted a generous settlement to split; Catherine Howard, married at 19 to three-decade-older Henry and summarily executed at 21 on a fabricated charge of treason; and finally, Catherine Parr, who hung around, outliving Henry by a year.

Now, six centuries on, a half-dozen women of extraordinary talent and infectious magnetism are portraying those erstwhile Queens on Broadway in “Six The Musical,” which was shuttered by the pandemic hours before its intended opening in March 2020. So…the obvious question: Was it worth the wait?

From left: Abby Mueller (Jane Seymour), Samantha Pauly (Katherine Howard), Adrianna Hicks (Catherine of Aragon), Andrea Macasaet (Anne Boleyn), Brittney Mack (Anne of Cleves), Anna Uzele (Catherine Parr) [Photos: Joan Marcus]

Continue reading

Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

Brave Title, Generic Show: “The Book of Moron”

When’s the last time you heard a Dumb Blond joke? Me neither, until Robert Dubac pulled one early in “The Book of Moron,” his solo comedic commentary in a limited engagement through October 3 at SoHo Playhouse, hard by the Holland Tunnel entrance. Later, he seems to retract the transgression, but instead doubles down on it. Granted, it is a small part of the 80-minute running time, but the “lengthy pre-show announcement” suggests that people might leave with some unwanted ideas. Those antediluvian gags were mine.

Robert Dubac [Photos courtesy of Moment-to-Moment Productions]

Continue reading

NY Theater, Off Broadway

“Merry Wives” in Harlem, via Central Park

Tradition holds that Queen Elizabeth I, enamored of Sir John Falstaff from Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, asked the playwright to depict that character in love, and that he complied, writing “The Merry Wives of Windsor” in under a fortnight. Maybe she asked and maybe she didn’t, and maybe The Bard speed-quilled and maybe he didn’t, but the play got writ. Somewhat short of a masterpiece, it has nonetheless remained a comic touchstone for four hundred years and counting.

It’s been said that alterations and updates to Shakespeare generally do no harm, but neither do they shed new light. Jocelyn Bioh’s adaptation of “Merry Wives,” playing through September 18 at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park, sheds new and different light on the farcical warhorse. Transposing the only Shakespeare comedy set entirely in England to one set entirely in Harlem is an unexpectedly smooth transition.

The cast of “Merry Wives” on designer Beowulf Boritt’s Harlem street set [Photos: Joan Marcus]

Continue reading

Blog