Musicals in the Garden State: “Little Jo” at Two River and Paper Mill’s “Mary Poppins”

Anyone who does not believe truth is stranger than fiction hasn’t been following the news lately…or has never heard about Joe Monaghan, whose story is encapsulated in the playbill of Two River Theater Company’s “The Ballad of Little Jo.” The relatively short article is an absorbing read about the real-life fellow whose life is fictionalized in the musical play, in turn adapted from director/screenwriter Maggie Greenwood’s widely praised 1993 movie.

Okay, the ‘fellow’ tag is a tease. Joe Monaghan was a woman.

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Blog, Professional, Regional

The 2017 Broadway Tony Awards: Predictions and Preferences

Some Broadway plays and musicals succeed or fail regardless of Tony Award consideration, but the fate of many more depends heavily on nominations, not even considering wins. Ticket sales for “Oslo” and “Groundhog Day,” for example, perked up the very day after their Best Play and Best Musical nominations were announced. Conversely, the musical “Amalie” announced its premature closing (on May 21) soon after receiving none.

While all shows are not Tony-dependent (hello “Hello, Dolly!”), others, including “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” with its dozen nominations, need the boost. Some 850 voters will determine the fates among those anointed by 43 nominators. The 850 include press reps, producers, road-show bookers and other theater insiders. (For reasons known only to the sponsoring American Theatre Wing, most critics were disenfranchised several years ago. Go figure.) CBS-TV will broadcast the Award ceremony at 8PM on Sunday, June 11.

Following are predictions and preferences in 14 major categories:

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

“The Government Inspector” is worth inspecting…

Part of my enjoyment of Red Bull Theater’s “The Government Inspector” derived from not knowing how accurately Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation translates Russian author Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 source play, “Revizor.” Or, for that matter, whether or not the performance is in the original style. Based on Hatcher’s billing as adaptor (not translator) and the actors’ eye-winking delivery, I’d say we’re not in Tsarist Russia anymore.

But, as Hatcher notes, the play, about bureaucratic hypocrisy, has not been up-dated. It wasn’t necessary. Modern audiences can see the contemporary versions of Gogol’s characters in the newspaper or on cable TV, or, as Hatcher suggest, you’ll have no problem making the connection between the venal 1830s Russian politicos and a town council meeting or House of Representatives committee hearing. Gogol himself said that he “decided to collect everything that was evil in Russia, all the injustices committed in places where justice is most of all expected…and laugh it off.” In that vein, “The Government Inspector” is a Trumpian spoof in spite of itself.

Michael McGrath, left, Mary Testa, Michael Urie and Talene Monahon (Photos: Carol Rosegg)

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

There’s a lot to love in “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me”

The set for “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” features a metal-frame stand-up desk upon which set microphones, a tape deck, amps and speakers, various other electronic devices and, oh yes, a set of bongo drums hanging on a side pole. It’s like an elaborate DJ platform. “This looks like fun already,” I thought as I walked in. Little did I envision how much fun this 90-minute musical adventure would be, how creative, how rhythmic, how engrossing, how downright wonderful.

With a book by Tony Award winner Joe DiPietro (“Memphis”), music by Brendan Milburn, “a stay-at-home dad who also writes songs” (great priorities), and lyrics by GrooveLily’s brilliant electro-violinist Val Vigoda, the piece is essentially a rock opera within a rock opera that works on both levels.

Wade McCollum and Val Vigoda

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

But soft! What light on NJ Rep Stage? ‘Tis “& Juliet”

There is an intriguing one-act, 80-minute play on the New Jersey Repertory stage. Unfolding in the fertile theatrical setting of higher-education academia, it deals with faculty jealousy, conflicts between established and fresh values, artistic integrity and racial tension. It takes some digging, however, to excavate that play from Robert Caisley’s two-act “& Juliet,” which is burdened by 20 extra minutes of repetitious dialogue. “Get to it!” I wanted to call out several times as the characters talked around the same topic over and over before finally making their points.

Those points revolve around newly-hired Theatrical Department director Charlie’s decision to pass over well-prepared African-American female student Annie in favor of casting a 14-year old boy as Juliet in the upcoming Shakespearian production.  (Despite Gwyneth Paltrow’s luminous turn in “Shakespeare in Love,” the original Juliet, circa 1598, was Robert Goffe, whose modern-day counterpart is an off-stage presence in Caisley’s play.)

John Fitzgibbon, left, Jacob A. Ware and Nadia Brown in “& Juliet” (Photos: SuzAnne Barabas)

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Blog, Professional, Regional

La guerra es el infierno para “The Women of Padilla” a Two River Theater

“The Women of Padilla” is a very well-written play, a realization I came to while reading it a couple days after seeing it at Two River Theater.

If ever a play was suited for Two River’s intimate black-box Huber theater, it is “Padilla,” but Tony Meneses’ 75-minute play about eight Mexican women waiting at home while their husbands are away at war is being staged in Two River’s 350-seat main auditorium, a veritable arena by comparison.  On the page, each woman is distinctly drawn both individually and in relation to the others. In brief, often clipped exchanges (most speeches are one or two sentences), Meneses exposes the women’s close-to-the-surface emotions with clarity and urgency. On the wide stage those elements are diffused; the words are there (and the performances are fine), but there’s little tension.

While there is a Padilla municipality in Mexico (thanks, Google), the title refers not to a location, but to a shared surname, acquired by the eight women when each married one of eight Padilla brothers, all of whom are at arms in an unspecified war (“It’s just men and bloodshed; it doesn’t matter where”). The sisters-in-law are thus linked by marriage, but more so by longings for their husbands and fears for their well-being. In the course of the play they tease, bicker, gossip (best not be the absentee) and support one another.

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Blog, Professional, Regional