Along Roll We Merrily

I am a charter member of the Spoilers Avoidance Association, but it is impossible to write about “Merrily We Roll Along” without revealing – to those not already aware – that the 1981 Stephen Sondheim (music and Lyrics) and George Furth (book) show runs in reverse; each of its scenes predates the previous one, regressing from 1980 to 1957.  So noted, suggesting that the original ran only sixteen performances (after 52 contentious previews) because it was ahead of its time is either profoundly ironic or just a lame wisecrack. Whichever, the musical examines the myth of the American Dream by tracing the lives of its central characters in a dozen annotated scenes (1976, ’73, etc.) from middle-age to youth. The Fiasco Theatre staging, at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, compresses it into one 110-minute act. But for some of the songs, it seemed longer.

Over the years, “Merrily” has achieved cult status, due to its form and Sondheim’s inventive score and, it can be argued, in spite of Furth’s clichéd book, which is nearly superfluous. The story centers on Hollywood producer Franklin Shepard (Ben Steinfeld), whose success comes at the expense of personal and professional betrayal of close friends Mary Flynn (Jessie Austrian) and Charley Kringas (Manu Narayan), who shared early show-biz struggles with Frank as a bonded threesome. By the end (the play’s beginning), Mary has gone from having “a little wine with dinner to the reverse,” and Charley from Frank’s close collaborator to a cast-off.

Manu Narayan, left, Jessie Austrian, Ben Steinfeld [Photos: Joan Marcus]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

“The Play That Goes Wrong” Goes Right Off-Broadway

Something funny happened to “The Play That Goes Wrong” on the way from Broadway to off-Broadway. Fear not; everything that was funny during its nearly two-year run in the 922-seat Lyceum Theatre is just as funny at the 360-seat New World Stages, where it re-opened this week. The difference, though, is a subtle pickup in how the audience relates to the characters. For me – and I sensed it throughout the house – it became personal, akin to cheering-on a perpetually losing team. But a ton more fun.

“The Play That Goes Wrong” cast and crew in their class(y) photo. {Pics: Jeremy Daniel]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

A blazing performance as Nina Simone in “Little Girl Blue”

My memories of seeing Nina Simone perform in Philadelphia and Atlantic City jazz clubs in the late 1950s/early 60s are soft-focus, because, well, do the math. What does remain sharp, though, is how her singing affected those of us fortunate enough to be her fans and catch her appearances. Her upbeat, syncopated stylings were infectious, and her soul-searching blues laments were spiritual, in every sense. Her self-accompanied “I Loves You, Porgy,” sung hunched down over the keyboard as if singing only for herself, was exquisite.

My memory of Laiona Michelle portraying Nina Simone in “Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical” is much sharper, not just because it was last week at George Street Playhouse, but because Ms. Michelle’s evocation of the iconic vocalist, musician and activist is an amazing piece of work. A creation, to be sure, but equally important, a re-creation of the life, times and persona of Ms. Simone. Not only does she virtually disappear into her subject, but except for the songs, Nina’s own and a dozen others, Michelle also wrote the emotionally stirring show. (Among those other composers are Judy Collins, Randy Newman, Jacques Brel and Rodgers & Hart. That Ms. Michelle sings them so well is thrilling. That she seamlessly integrates them into her show, along with themes by Johann Sebastian Bach, is near genius.)

Laiona Michelle as Nina Simone [Photos: T Charles Erickson]

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Blog, Professional, Regional

“Ain’t Misbehavin'” at Westchester: The Joint Is Jumpin’

To describe a play or musical as ‘dated’ might indicate that the piece is no longer relevant by virtue of evolved social or moral standards. (You won’t see Neil Simon’s play about the battered alcoholic Gingerbread Lady any time soon.) But the term can also denote a positive, as in evoking an era worth re-visiting despite – or even because of – some outmoded characteristics. So it is with “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” sub-titled “The Fats Waller Musical Show,” enjoying a spirited revival at Westchester Broadway Theatre (a dinner-and-show venue, with a varied menu of entrees included in the ticket prices).

While it was not the first ‘jukebox’ musical, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was the first major successful one, opening off-Broadway in 1978 and soon moving to Broadway, where it won three Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The show quickly spawned two other catalog musicals: “Eubie,” which spotlighted the works of Eubie Blake, and “Sophisticated Ladies,” which did the same for Duke Ellington. (“Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Five Guys Named Moe” and, arguably, such as “Mamma Mia” and “Jersey Boys” also owe a debt to Fats.)

The “Ain’t Misbehavin'” company  [Photos: John Vecchiolla]

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Blog, Professional, Regional

A walk on the farce side: “Noises Off” at Two River Theater

One can imagine the Two River Theater staff meeting to select a catch-phrase for their “Noises Off” advertising campaign. It is fitting that they settled on “One of the funniest plays ever written,” because, well, honesty is the best policy. If they were plugging “Nothing On” instead, they might have substituted ‘clumsiest’ for ‘funniest’ in the blurb and still maintained their integrity.

“Nothing On” is the play being rehearsed and performed within Michael Frayn’s supremely comical “Noises Off” by a troupe of inept actors who manage to mangle the farce-within-the-farce at every step. Two River’s cast is anything but inept; their bungling of the third-rate inner play is a rib-tickling delight, a master-class in comic timing.

(Frayn’s mock “Nothing On” playbill is tucked way back in Two River’s own booklet. When you attend, dig it out; it is a devilishly clever parody.)

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Blog, Professional, Regional

It’s “Apple Season” in Long Branch New Jersey

At one point in E. M. Lewis’s “Apple Season” at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, one of the play’s several contemporaneous ‘Rolling Premiere’ productions, Lissie’s former would-be boyfriend Billy (it’s been twenty years) says of her taciturn brother Roger, “Anything there was to know about him, you had to piece together.”  Another time, he tells her “You are the most confusing two people I ever met,” and while Roger had been mentioned just prior, Billy’s plural could apply just to Lissie.

The nature of the relationships among the three “Apple Season” characters isn’t always clear. Neither are the twenty-years-ago details of events that shaped those relationships both then and two decades later. That might seem like a knock on the play, but it is not. On the contrary, that’s just how some people are, deep and private, and how some memories are, faded or repressed, and capturing those human elements in a one-act play is an admirable accomplishment.

It is the present day in rural Oregon, soon after Lissie and Roger Fogerty’s father’s funeral. She is picking apples in the family orchard, before returning to her fourth-grade teaching job in another town. Roger has already left to resume his nomadic hired-hand farming vocation, and Billy, who, at 36, lives on a neighboring farm with his parents (“again, not still”), where he tends to his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, has come to sound out Lissie about buying the Fogerty property. And, we gradually learn, to renew contact and unburden himself of a secret that has festered over the years.

Lissie (Kersti Bryan) and Billy (Christopher J. Smith [Photos: SuzAnne Barabas]

As they banter and flirt, we learn of the Fogerty family’s turbulent past, following the mother’s early death, and we begin to understand why the mental and emotional upheaval has never abated. Flashbacks, enacted live and before a rear-projection screen, fill in some gaps, but most of what we learn is through the characters’ behavior, their attitude toward one another and the sub-text of their conversation.

Which brings us to the performances, which are, in a word, outstanding. Kersti Bryan reveals more of Lissie’s psyche than the woman herself wants known, which is, after all, the point of the play (and, it could be said, of acting). The three-woman collaboration among playwright Lewis, director Zoya Kachadurian and actor Bryan is as smooth as it is knowing. Christopher M. Smith is a charming Billy. Awkward in Lissie’s presence, he’s nonetheless honest and emotionally available. The two achieve the essential chemistry between Lissie and Billy over a bottle of real AppleJack (if you know, you know), aided by some light-hearted innuendo. Lissie, for example, has plenty of apples, but “I haven’t got any cherries.” Ms. Bryan also coaxes sexiness out of “You can tell a lot about a man by his Swiss Army knife.”

Roger is a strange fellow, bedeviled by life-long anger and resentment he’d had to stifle for years. Richard Kent Green plays him just that way, with an undercurrent of vulnerability that softens his seeming hostility.

Roger (Richard Kent Green) and Lissie (Ms. Bryan)

The excellent technical aspects of “Apple Season” belie NJ Rep’s intimate playing area. Jessica Parks’ set is an apple orchard, and the projections, for which I’m assuming lighting designers Jill Nagle and Janey Huber as well as technical director Bryan P. Snyder share credit, are state-of-the-art in design and execution.

A few plot elements strain credulity. Lissie’s (unseen) Aunt Sally’s apparent passivity in the face of an unusual situation is glossed over; how Lissie’s financial needs, including college, are met is unrealistic (not nefarious, but would be a spoiler), and the idea that the experienced and reasonably worldly teacher had never been out of the state of Oregon seems a stretch.

At 85 minutes, “Apple Season” is certainly not overlong, but tightening some of its exchanges would enhance its pace. As it stands, however, it is an incisive slice of life, staged and especially acted in an impressive less-is-more naturalism. Accepting the rationality of Lissie’s final act requires major suspension of disbelief, but by then Ms. Bryan and the Misters Smith and Kent Green have made it seem plausible.

Through Feb. 10 at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch NJ. Performances Thurs & Fri. at 8PM; Sat. at 3 & 8; Sun. at 2PM. For tickets ($50): 732-229-3166 or at